Daily Digest - September 25: Listening to Shareholders on CEO Pay

Sep 25, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

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Can Say-on-Pay Curb Executive Compensation? (Roosevelt Institute)

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Can Say-on-Pay Curb Executive Compensation? (Roosevelt Institute)

In her new policy note, Roosevelt Institute Director of Research Susan Holmberg argues that Say-on-Pay, which allows shareholders to vote on executive pay packages, is working, because even when shareholders approve CEO pay, boards are paying attention to the dissenters.

How a Churchgoing Urban Planner Became Compton’s Millennial Mayor (Next City)

Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow Nona Willis Aronowitz profiles Aja Brown, the new mayor of Compton who is focusing her administration on growth. Her work on basic quality of life issues is increasing her popularity in the old guard of Compton politics.

Washington Dysfunction Threatens U.S. Economy (MSNBC)

Suzy Khimm looks at just how badly a government shutdown would hurt the economy, from federal workers to B&B owners near national parks. Experts say that a shutdown longer than a few days could wipe out an entire quarter's economic growth.

The Path to Dysfunction (NYT)

Jared Bernstein looks at what got us to the point where a government shutdown seems possible next week. There are plenty of reasons, but he's most concerned by the lack of facts in any of these debates, since each side of the aisle has its own set.

Why Obama Can’t Pay a Debt-Ceiling Ransom This Time (NY Mag)

Jonathan Chait thinks that Republicans need to realize that the President is serious when he says he won't negotiate on the debt ceiling this time around. The GOP seems convinced they can get concessions, but they're more likely to drive us into a default.

GOP Launches Race War to Boost the 1 Percent (Salon)

Brittney Cooper writes that Republicans are using racial stereotypes to stir up support for their food stamp cuts. By invoking the "welfare queen," they can get support for cuts that primarily effect poor whites in red states, while keeping those voters on their side.

Mortgages are Easier to Get These Days … Watch Out, it Could be a Trap! (The Guardian)

Heidi Moore thinks people should be cautious before celebrating the fact that banks are giving more mortgages to people with lower credit scores. These lowered standards could be an early red flag, since similar patterns led up to the housing crisis.

New on Next New Deal

War-Weary Millennials See Few Good Options in Syria

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Defense and Diplomacy Jacqueline Van de Velde argues that Millennials would be happiest with a diplomatic solution to Syria's chemical weapons, but she's not sure it's doable.

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The Next Real Fight for Obamacare Will Be in 2014

Sep 23, 2013Richard Kirsch

Progressives must get out in front of the battle to preserve the biggest expansion of the social safety net in decades.

It's been 100 years since ideological conservatives joined with doctors and insurance companies to kill the first movement in the United States for what was then called "compulsory health care." Now, on the eve of their epic loss, those who deeply hate the idea that we have a collective responsibility to care for each other are desperately trying to stop history's clock.

Progressives must get out in front of the battle to preserve the biggest expansion of the social safety net in decades.

It's been 100 years since ideological conservatives joined with doctors and insurance companies to kill the first movement in the United States for what was then called "compulsory health care." Now, on the eve of their epic loss, those who deeply hate the idea that we have a collective responsibility to care for each other are desperately trying to stop history's clock.

Beneath the tested rhetoric from opponents like the Heritage Foundation and Texas Senator Ted Cruz about a government takeover or Obamacare killing jobs and the economy, we can find expressions of the driving force behind the right's obsession. One telling quote is from Missouri State Senator Rob Shaaf, who declared, “We can’t afford everything we do now, let alone provide free medical care to able-bodied adults.” Another is the proud statement from Steve Lonegan, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in New Jersey, who told me in a debate on Obamacare at the FDR Library, “I only care about me and my family.”

These celebrations of extreme individualism are bald expressions of the "47 percent of Americans are takers" ideology that has become the driving fixation of Republicans, with the latest example being the vote in the House to deny food stamps to 4 million people because they are unemployed.

The right most fears the establishment of another new program based on our common humanity. With her gift for sarcasm, New York Times columnist Gail Collins captured the irony of the Republican’s desperation to stop Obamacare before it starts: “The new health care law is going to be terrible, wreaking havoc on American families, ruining their lives. And they are going to love it so much they will never have the self-control necessary to give it up.”

If this is a defining moment for the right, it is also for the left. As Jonathan Chait wrote this week, in a great restrospective on Republican opposition to the ACA, “The transformative potential of Obamacare is not a conservative hallucination.”

For all its faults, the Affordable Care Act is the biggest expansion in half a century of the progressive belief that we all do better when we all do better. Almost 50 years ago, Medicare was greeted by Ronald Reagan – then a mouthpiece for the American Medical Association –  as a foot in the door to a totalitarian takeover. The right has long understood how high the American view of the role of government would be lifted if people came to rely on government for something as essential to a person's well-being as health care.

The battleground now shifts to how the public perceives the law's impact. I would like to believe that Ted Cruz was right about this, at least, when he told The Daily Caller, “President Obama wants to get as many Americans addicted to the subsidies because he knows that in modern times, no major entitlement has ever been implemented and then unwound.”

However, the lesson of the past three years is that the rhetoric has been more powerful than the reality. The most telling data is that the age group that has most definitively benefited from the Affordable Care Act, seniors, has the highest disapproval rating of the law. Thanks to the ACA, some six million seniors have received free preventive care under Medicare and 6.3 million people on Medicare saved over $6.1 billion on prescriptions. Still, the relentless attack messages aimed at seniors, starting with the death panel lies during the legislative debate on the law and accelerating in the 2010 election, have taken their toll.

On its face, opposing Obamacare should not be a winning electoral issue in 2014, if only because it will actually affect so few people. Several million people will get health coverage and very little else will change. But we can be certain that the right will continue to blame every established long-term trend in health care and the workforce – rising premiums, higher deductibles, fewer people getting health coverage at work – on the ACA.

The implementation of the ACA will also give its opponents new ammunition. Not just from the inevitable glitches in signing up people, made worse by Republican sabotage in many states, but from the law's biggest shortcoming: while millions will gain access to affordable coverage for the first time, others will be asked to pay more than they can afford or pay a fine.

Still, the fact that Obamacare will finally be doing what it was designed to do puts its defenders on higher ground, if we embrace the hard lessons of the past three years. Cementing the Affordable Care Act as a pillar of social security will require that Obamacare's champions aggressively respond to attacks and tell the stories of people whose lives have been transformed by the law. 

Until now, it has been almost impossible to explain to people how the Affordable Care Act will work. It has been a new, complicated concept rather than a real-life gate to getting health coverage. But the millions who will begin to benefit on January 1 will be able to tell a different story: the cancer survivor who can get coverage despite his preexisting condition; the budding entrepreneur who can leave her job to start a small business; the 60 year-old who lost her job but was still able to get health coverage.

With Obamacare a reality, not just a threat, their stories can be added to stories of a senior who is saving hundreds of dollars on Medicare prescriptions and the family whose finances were not wiped out when their 24-year-old son, still on his parents' health plan, was in an accident. 

The debate will be sharpest, and have the most impact, leading to the 2014 congressional elections. Republicans will be pushed by the right to make Obamacare a big issue, regardless of whether their pollsters advise that the failure of the world to implode after its implementation has taken some of the sting out. We can be sure that the Koch brothers will fund attack ads in swing districts and states. In 2010, the failure by Democrats to vigorously defend the law, particularly among seniors who vote most heavily in non-presidential elections, was a big factor in Republican success.

Progressives must engage in the fight now and prepare for 2014. It will not be enough to enroll people in Obamacare. We will need to organize new enrollees, their families, and their communities to be powerful spokespeople for the Affordable Care Act.

The ACA has proven to be the cat with nine lives, surviving near-death experiences during the legislative battle, the Supreme Court ruling, congressional and presidential elections, and the barrage of repeal votes, which are reaching their height now. The new day that the right has feared for a century will start in just three months. But the battle will not end then. The next big test will be November 2014. The stakes for people’s lives and livelihoods, and for the progressive expression of the American values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, could not be higher. 

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.

 

Health care costs image via Shutterstock.com

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Why New York is Home to So Many of the Working Poor, in Graphs

Sep 16, 2013Nell Abernathy

The Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative is trying to understand how New York got so unequal. And we're looking for solutions.

The Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative is trying to understand how New York got so unequal. And we're looking for solutions.

So what is behind this big shift toward income inequality in New York? Income trends in the city represent an amplified version of our national problems: low-wage jobs without benefits are replacing middle-wage jobs that could support families. Nationwide, middle-wage jobs constituted 60 percent of the jobs lost during the Great Recession and only 22 percent of those regained during recovery, according to analysis from Roosevelt Institute’s Annette Bernhardt at NELP. Meanwhile, low-wage jobs made up only 21 percent of recession job losses and 58 percent of jobs gained since.

The national trend started well before the Great Recession.

And in New York, it’s been the same, but worse. A 2012 report from the Federal Reserve found that middle-income jobs comprised 67 percent of employment in downstate New York in the 1980s, but by 2010, that number fell to 55.8 percent.

Top that off with the fact that for the last decade, wages have risen for the top 5 percent and stagnated or fallen for middle- and low-income workers, and you begin to see the currents driving our inequality crisis.

Why is this happening? Technology? Wall Street? Policy? Education?

We’ll explore those questions and potential solutions at our upcoming panel, "Inequality in New York: The Next Mayor’s Challenge."

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

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The 2 Train Travels Between New York's "Two Cities"

Sep 13, 2013Nell Abernathy

New York City is as starkly divided along economic lines as it is connected by its famous subway lines.  The Roosevelt Institute is looking for solutions.

New York City is as starkly divided along economic lines as it is connected by its famous subway lines.  The Roosevelt Institute is looking for solutions.

Another fun/depressing/informative infographic on New York City’s stunning wealth divide: Back in April, before the election was heating up, the good people at The New Yorker plotted the diverging extremes in median income of New York neighborhoods along the subway lines. It turns out you can actually ride the 2 train from prosperity to poverty.

The neighborhood surrounding the 2 train Chambers Street stop in Tribeca  has a median income of $205,192 and is among the city's wealthiest.

Fourteen miles further north, around the East 180th Street stop in the Bronx, median income is $13,750. For those who think income is irrelevant as long as you can access the American dream, opportunities aren't so great up there, either.

 Come learn about solutions from the experts at our September 24 event, "Inequality in New York: the Next Mayor’s Challenge."

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

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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.

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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:

  

 

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