A Dem Who Can Explain that Fairness is Prosperity Will Sweep in 2016

Nov 19, 2014Richard Kirsch

The policies that will deliver economic growth also center fairness, and that's what Democrats need to emphasize to keep the presidency in 2016.

The policies that will deliver economic growth also center fairness, and that's what Democrats need to emphasize to keep the presidency in 2016.

The familiar debate within the Democratic Party – move left or right – is on. In a memo to a “limited number of Democratic leaders,” Third Way, the leading organization for corporate Democrats, lays down the gauntlet: “Democrats are offering economic fairness, but voters want economic growth and prosperity.” And for good measure, Third Way declares, “And it has to be meaningful; Democrats can’t simply stick a 'growth' label on the old bottle of 'fairness' policies.”

The folks at Third Way are right about one thing; voters do want economic growth and prosperity. Where they are wrong is in their assumption that fairness can't be a part of that growth. The policies that do the most to bolster fairness are in fact the most powerful policies to move the economy forward and create broadly shared prosperity.

Progressives and Democrats don’t always make that clear. Most of the time they talk about fairness as separate from broadly-shared prosperity. The Democrat who bases his or her campaign on that crucial link will sweep into the presidency in 2016.

Policies that increase fairness are key to driving the economy forward.

Raising the minimum wage is not just about basic fairness for low-wage workers. Raising wages is about creating economy boosting jobs, not economy busting jobs. When wages are raised, workers have more money to spend, essential when 70 percent of the economy is made up of consumer spending.

An economy boosting job pays enough to cover the basics, which is why the fight for a $15 per hour minimum wage mobilizes people to action. It is about working at that wage for enough hours, with predictable schedules, so that the wages add up to a decent paycheck. It is about getting paid when you are out sick and having paid family leave, so you can care for and support your family. It is about women getting paid as much as men. It is about being able to afford your health care, so you have money to spend on other essentials and don’t end up bankrupt because of a high-cost illness. It is about increasing Social Security benefits and bolstering retirement savings, so you can keep supporting yourself and keep the economy moving well into your retirement.

These measures reward people fairly for work and are essential to rebuilding the middle class engine of the economy, as shown by the evidence collected in the Center for American Progress’s middle-out economics project.

The flip side of creating economy boosting jobs is reversing the soaring concentration of wealth. It’s not just unfair that the rich are grabbing more and more of the wealth we all create, it’s a big reason that the economy remains sluggish. When the top 1 percent capture virtually all of the economic progress, it's impossible for them to spend much of it. When corporations sit on trillions of dollars of cash because there aren’t markets for their goods, that money doesn’t go to higher wages or investment in creating jobs or other things that would boost productivity throughout the economy.

Even Wall Street is beginning to get it. In a report that is stunning only for its source, Standard & Poor's found this summer that “Our review of the data, as well as a wealth of research on this matter, leads us to conclude that the current level of income inequality in the U.S. is dampening GDP growth, at a time when the world's biggest economy is struggling to recover from the Great Recession and the government is in need of funds to support an aging population.”

A big goal of Third Way’s memo is to justify policies that they admit “may not be the most politically popular.” While some of the Third Way proposals are worthwhile, like millions of teachers for pre-K, much of their agenda is that of corporate America and in some cases would actually be bad for the economic growth they claim to seek.

Using coded language in an attempt to dilute the political poison, Third Way pushes for cutting Social Security benefits, lowering corporate tax rates rather than stopping corporate tax evasion, and agreeing to new trade deals which would drive the race to the bottom and allow corporations to challenge environmental and health and safety laws, instead of bolstering American workers' already hard-pressed incomes.

Instead, what the country needs and what Democrats should push are bold policies which drive the economy forward and create broadly shared prosperity: fairness.

We can start by putting Americans to work with a massive investment in core productive infrastructure in three areas: transportation, from roads and bridges to high speed rail; clean, renewable energy, which will simultaneously tackle climate disruption; and high-speed Internet for every home and business in America. Everyone who does this work should be paid enough, with good benefits, to support and care for their families, and be given the flexibility needed to care for those families.  In doing so, we doubly boost the economy: through the investment in infrastructure and through the good jobs.

It is both fair and essential for our economic future to ensure that every child has a quality education and the opportunity to succeed in school, career, and life. We need to modernize and replace dilapidated schools and assure that every child has a well-prepared and supported teacher in a small enough class to learn. We need to transform schools, particularly those that teach children in low-income neighborhoods, into community centers. We should make high-quality child care and pre-K universal, employing millions more providers and teachers.

We need to provide career training for the high-skilled jobs that don’t require traditional college. We need to make college affordable, by dramatically lowering the cost of public colleges and universities, providing much more tuition assistance, and tying the payment of student loans to earnings.

And as in infrastructure, all these jobs – from day-care providers to teachers to college professors (no more adjuncts) – should be good jobs, with good pay, benefits, and the flexibility to care and support families.

The only reason that Democrats would consider an agenda that Third Way admits is politically unpopular is to please corporate campaign donors and elites. But with President Obama pushing for new trade deals, advocating revenue-neutral corporate tax reform and having supported cuts in Social Security benefits, that agenda is as alive as the billions in campaign contributions that pour into both political parties.

Americans are right about two things. One, the system is rigged to favor the wealthy and powerful. Two, unless we change course, the future will not be better for our children. Those are the core reasons we saw historically low voter turn out this month and why minimum wage hikes passed at the same time voters decided to give Republicans their turn in the continuing roller-coaster of Congressional control over the past decade.

The Democrat who champions bold policies to build an America that works for all of us, not just the wealthy, and policies that create broadly shared, sustainable prosperity, will triumph in 2016.

The key, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt did (and as great organizers do), is to tap into anger and lift up hope. FDR railed against the “economic royalists” and experimented with bold policies that reigned in financial speculation and put Americans to work building the foundations for the 20th Century economy. 

The next FDR will name the villains who are rigging the system: Wall Street speculators and corporations that cut wages and benefits and ship jobs overseas. The next FDR will reveal the truth that “we all do better when we all do better.” That when we all earn enough to care and support our families, when we can shop in our neighborhoods, give our kids a great education, afford our health care, retire with security, we drive the economy forward.

Mamby-pamby won’t cut it. Americans are crying for bold leadership, a way out of a narrowing world towards a better world for our children.

The Democrat who leads a political party that stands up against the rich and powerful and stands up for working families and the middle class, who declares that Americans have done this before and that together we can do it again, will triumph in 2016. A Democratic party that relentlessly presses that agenda into action will meet the great challenge of our time. 

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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The UNC Coup and the Second Limit of Economic Liberalism

Nov 13, 2014Mike Konczal

There was a quiet revolution in the University of North Carolina higher education system in August, one that shows an important limit of current liberal thought. In the aftermath of the 2014 election, there’s been a significant amount of discussion over whether liberals have an economic agenda designed for the working and middle classes. This discussion has primarily been about wages in the middle of the income distribution, which are the first major limit of liberal thought; however, it is also tied to a second limit, which is the way that liberals want to provide public goods and services.

So what happened? The UNC System Board of Governors voted unanimously to cap the amount of tuition that may be used for financial aid for need-based students at no more than 15 percent. With tuition going up rapidly at public universities as the result of public disinvestment, administrators have recently begun using general tuition to supplement their ability to provide aid. This cross-subsidization has been heralded as a solution to the problem of high college costs. Sticker price is high, but the net price for poorer students will be low.

This system works as long as there is sufficient middle-class buy-in, but it’s now capped at UNC. As a board member told the local press, the burden of providing need-based aid “has become unfairly apportioned to working North Carolinians,” and this new policy helps prevent that. Iowa implemented a similar approach back in 2013. And as Kevin Kiley has reported for IHE, similar proposals have been floated in Arizona and Virginia. This trend is likely to gain strength as states continue to disinvest.

The problem for liberals isn’t just that there’s no way for them to win this argument with middle-class wages stagnating, though that is a problem. The far bigger issue for liberals is that this is a false choice, a real class antagonism that has been created entirely by the process of state disinvestment, privatization, cost-shifting of tuitions away from general revenues to individuals, and the subsequent explosion in student debt. As long as liberals continue to play this game, they’ll be undermining their chances.

First Limit: Middle-Class Wages

There’s been a wave of commentary about how the Democrats don’t have a middle-class wage agenda. David Leonhardt wrote the core essay, “The Great Wage Slowdown, Looming Over Politics,” with its opening line: “How does the Democratic Party plan to lift stagnant middle-class incomes?” Josh Marshall made the same argument as well. The Democrats have many smart ideas on the essential agenda of reducing poverty, most of which derive from pegging the low-end wage at a higher level and then adding cash or cash-like transfers to fill in the rest. But what about the middle class?

One obvious answer is “full employment.” Running the economy at full steam is the most straightforward way of boosting overall wages and perhaps reversing the growth in the capital-share of income. However, that approach hasn’t been adopted by the President, strategically or even rhetorically. Part of it might be that if the economy is terrible because of vague forces, technological changes and necessary pain following a financial crisis, then the Democrats can’t really be blamed for stagnation. That strategy will not work out for them.

The Democrats (and even many liberals in general) also haven’t developed a story about why inequality matters so much for the middle class. There are such stories, of course: the collapse of high progressive taxation creates incentives to rent seek, financialization makes the economy focused less on innovation and more on disgorging the cash, and new platform monopolies are deploying forms of market power that are increasingly worrisome.

Second Limit: Public Provisioning

A similar dynamic is in play with social goods. The liberal strategy is increasingly to leave the provisioning of social goods to the market, while providing coupons for the poorest to afford those goods. By definition, means-testing this way puts high implicit taxes on poorer people in a way that decommodification does not. But beyond that simple point, this leaves middle-class people in a bind, as the ability of the state to provide access and contain costs efficiently through its scale doesn’t benefit them, and stagnating incomes put even more pressure on them.

As noted, antagonisms between the middle class and the poor in higher education are entirely a function of public disinvestment. The moment higher education is designed to put massive costs onto individual students, suddenly individuals are forced to look out only for themselves. If college tuition was largely free, paid for by all people and income sources, then there’d be no need for a working-class or middle-class student to view poorer student as a direct threat to their economic stability. And there's no better way to prematurely destroy a broader liberal agenda by designing a system that creates these conflicts.

These worries are real. The incomes of recent graduates are stagnating as well. The average length of time people are taking to pay off their student loans is up 80 percent, to over 13 years. Meanwhile, as Janet Yellen recently showed in the graphic below, student debt is rising as a percentage of income for everyone below the bottom 5 percent. It’s not surprising that studies find student debt impacting family formation and small business creation, and that people are increasingly looking out for just themselves.

You could imagine committing to lowering costs broadly across the system, say through the proposal by Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall to make the first two years free. But Democrats aren't doing this. Instead, President Obama’s solution is to try and make students better consumers on the front-end with more disclosures and outcome surveys for schools, and to make the lowest-income graduates better debtors on the back-end with caps on how burdensome student debt can be. These solutions by the President are not designed to contain the costs of higher education in a substantial way and, crucially, they don’t increase the public buy-in and interest in public higher education.

The Relevance for the ACA

I brought up higher education because I think it’s relevant, but I think it also can help explain the lack of political payout for the Affordable Care Act. It’s here! The ACA is not only meeting expectations, it’s even exceeding them in major ways. Yet it still remains unpopular, even as millions of people are using the exchanges. There is no political payout for the Democrats.

Liberals chalk this up to the right-wing noise machine, and no doubt that hurts. But part of the problem is that middle-class individuals still end up facing an individual product they are purchasing in a market, except without any subsidies. Though the insurance is better regulated, serious cost controls so far have not been part of the discussion. Polling shows half of the users of the exchange are unsure if they can make their payments and are worried about being able to afford getting sick. This, in turn, blocks the formation of a broad-based coalition capable of defending, sustaining, and expanding the ACA in the same way those have formed for Social Security and Medicare.

Any serious populist agenda will have to have a broader agenda for wages, with full employment as the central idea. But it will also need to include social programs that are broader based and focused on cost controls; here, luckily, the public option is a perfect organizing metaphor.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

There was a quiet revolution in the University of North Carolina higher education system in August, one that shows an important limit of current liberal thought. In the aftermath of the 2014 election, there’s been a significant amount of discussion over whether liberals have an economic agenda designed for the working and middle classes. This discussion has primarily been about wages in the middle of the income distribution, which are the first major limit of liberal thought; however, it is also tied to a second limit, which is the way that liberals want to provide public goods and services.

So what happened? The UNC System Board of Governors voted unanimously to cap the amount of tuition that may be used for financial aid for need-based students at no more than 15 percent. With tuition going up rapidly at public universities as the result of public disinvestment, administrators have recently begun using general tuition to supplement their ability to provide aid. This cross-subsidization has been heralded as a solution to the problem of high college costs. Sticker price is high, but the net price for poorer students will be low.

This system works as long as there is sufficient middle-class buy-in, but it’s now capped at UNC. As a board member told the local press, the burden of providing need-based aid “has become unfairly apportioned to working North Carolinians,” and this new policy helps prevent that. Iowa implemented a similar approach back in 2013. And as Kevin Kiley has reported for IHE, similar proposals have been floated in Arizona and Virginia. This trend is likely to gain strength as states continue to disinvest.

The problem for liberals isn’t just that there’s no way for them to win this argument with middle-class wages stagnating, though that is a problem. The far bigger issue for liberals is that this is a false choice, a real class antagonism that has been created entirely by the process of state disinvestment, privatization, cost-shifting of tuitions away from general revenues to individuals, and the subsequent explosion in student debt. As long as liberals continue to play this game, they’ll be undermining their chances.

First Limit: Middle-Class Wages

There’s been a wave of commentary about how the Democrats don’t have a middle-class wage agenda. David Leonhardt wrote the core essay, “The Great Wage Slowdown, Looming Over Politics,” with its opening line: “How does the Democratic Party plan to lift stagnant middle-class incomes?” Josh Marshall made the same argument as well. The Democrats have many smart ideas on the essential agenda of reducing poverty, most of which derive from pegging the low-end wage at a higher level and then adding cash or cash-like transfers to fill in the rest. But what about the middle class?

One obvious answer is “full employment.” Running the economy at full steam is the most straightforward way of boosting overall wages and perhaps reversing the growth in the capital-share of income. However, that approach hasn’t been adopted by the President, strategically or even rhetorically. Part of it might be that if the economy is terrible because of vague forces, technological changes and necessary pain following a financial crisis, then the Democrats can’t really be blamed for stagnation. That strategy will not work out for them.

The Democrats (and even many liberals in general) also haven’t developed a story about why inequality matters so much for the middle class. There are such stories, of course: the collapse of high progressive taxation creates incentives to rent seek, financialization makes the economy focused less on innovation and more on disgorging the cash, and new platform monopolies are deploying forms of market power that are increasingly worrisome.

Second Limit: Public Provisioning

A similar dynamic is in play with social goods. The liberal strategy is increasingly to leave the provisioning of social goods to the market, while providing coupons for the poorest to afford those goods. By definition, means-testing this way puts high implicit taxes on poorer people in a way that decommodification does not. But beyond that simple point, this leaves middle-class people in a bind, as the ability of the state to provide access and contain costs efficiently through its scale doesn’t benefit them, and stagnating incomes put even more pressure on them.

As noted, antagonisms between the middle class and the poor in higher education are entirely a function of public disinvestment. The moment higher education is designed to put massive costs onto individual students, suddenly individuals are forced to look out only for themselves. If college tuition was largely free, paid for by all people and income sources, then there’d be no need for a working-class or middle-class student to view poorer student as a direct threat to their economic stability. And there's no better way to prematurely destroy a broader liberal agenda by designing a system that creates these conflicts.

These worries are real. The incomes of recent graduates are stagnating as well. The average length of time people are taking to pay off their student loans is up 80 percent, to over 13 years. Meanwhile, as Janet Yellen recently showed in the graphic below, student debt is rising as a percentage of income for everyone below the bottom 5 percent. It’s not surprising that studies find student debt impacting family formation and small business creation, and that people are increasingly looking out for just themselves.

You could imagine committing to lowering costs broadly across the system, say through the proposal by Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall to make the first two years free. But Democrats aren't doing this. Instead, President Obama’s solution is to try and make students better consumers on the front-end with more disclosures and outcome surveys for schools, and to make the lowest-income graduates better debtors on the back-end with caps on how burdensome student debt can be. These solutions by the President are not designed to contain the costs of higher education in a substantial way and, crucially, they don’t increase the public buy-in and interest in public higher education.

The Relevance for the ACA

I brought up higher education because I think it’s relevant, but I think it also can help explain the lack of political payout for the Affordable Care Act. It’s here! The ACA is not only meeting expectations, it’s even exceeding them in major ways. Yet it still remains unpopular, even as millions of people are using the exchanges. There is no political payout for the Democrats.

Liberals chalk this up to the right-wing noise machine, and no doubt that hurts. But part of the problem is that middle-class individuals still end up facing an individual product they are purchasing in a market, except without any subsidies. Though the insurance is better regulated, serious cost controls so far have not been part of the discussion. Polling shows half of the users of the exchange are unsure if they can make their payments and are worried about being able to afford getting sick. This, in turn, blocks the formation of a broad-based coalition capable of defending, sustaining, and expanding the ACA in the same way those have formed for Social Security and Medicare.

Any serious populist agenda will have to have a broader agenda for wages, with full employment as the central idea. But it will also need to include social programs that are broader based and focused on cost controls; here, luckily, the public option is a perfect organizing metaphor.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

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Democracy, Economic Crisis, and “Rethinking Communities”

Sep 29, 2014Sabeel Rahman

The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Rethinking Communities initiative is emblematic of the model for democratic and economic reform needed in this New Gilded Age.

The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Rethinking Communities initiative is emblematic of the model for democratic and economic reform needed in this New Gilded Age.

As the latest Census report highlights, economic inequality continues to worsen. With a sluggish economic recovery, continued economic insecurity for many Americans, and ongoing political gridlock, it is increasingly clear that we live in a New Gilded Age. To successfully challenge this status quo, we must look to the lessons of past democratic reform movements as well as the innovative work that is being done on the ground even now in our communities.

Over a hundred years ago, the first Gilded Age witnessed a similar confluence of economic and political crises. It was the era of the rise of mega-corporations and trusts like Standard Oil. Not coincidentally, it was also an era of economic upheaval, recurring financial crises, and a growing anxiety about the ways in which economic inequality and concentrated private power would contaminate and corrupt politics, making it serve special and elite interests rather than the public good.

These crises provoked what became some of the most transformative reform movements in American history: the labor movement, the anti-trust movement, the Populist movement, and the Progressive movement. The common thread throughout these reform efforts was the desire to reclaim some form of popular sovereignty, whether through the creation of local-level policymaking powers for municipalities, the direct election of senators, the creation of national regulatory bodies to check corporate power, or the spread of direct democratic referenda procedures.

The ferment of these decades created the intellectual inheritance of the New Deal. When FDR came into office in the midst of the Great Depression, the members of his administration turned to policies initially pioneered by their Populist and Progressive precursors, especially when it came to banking, financial, and social safety net reforms.

But where the New Deal had decades of Populist and Progressive experimentation to build on, our current context is quite different. The present moment is similar to the early twentieth century in that our fundamental problem is one of dysfunctional democracy. To address economic inequality, we must first reform our democracy to make it more accountable and responsive. But this is not so easily done now that decades of political attacks have dismantled both the public’s faith in and the actual efficacy of democratic governance and the social safety net. The challenge of our generation is three-fold: address our ongoing economic crisis, rebuild the viability of and faith in democratic governance, and do so in a way that develops innovative models of democratic economic policymaking that we can spread and build on.

Cities represent a key frontline in this effort. There is a growing interest in the city as a unit of governance, and cities are unique economic engines whose population density and diversity make them critical drivers of innovation and economic growth. They are at the forefront of economic and policy innovation. They also represent one of the best hopes for reviving a genuine, grassroots democracy. Already participatory budgeting is starting to gain traction in U.S. cities as a way to create more robust grassroots participation while also improving the allocation of resources to underserved groups.

The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network’s Rethinking Communities initiative represents an exciting effort to drive this movement forward. By focusing on their own universities, Campus Network chapters can help reinvest in their local communities by pressing administrations to direct their investment or procurement policies to local businesses, or by broadening access to universities and community colleges by accepting public assistance, such as food stamps, on campus.

There are two particularly innovative dimensions to the Rethinking Communities initiative:

First, it represents a grassroots, democratic effort. The initiative itself was devised through a participatory strategy process within the Campus Network, through a series of bottom-up meetings and discussions in campus chapters and through a nation-wide convening at the FDR Library in Hyde Park. Campus Network chapters working with local stakeholders in their advocacy efforts further accentuate this democratic ethos.

Second, the initiative also reflects a growing push in economic development circles to reorient local economic development in a more community-oriented direction.

One conventional view of local economic development is that it is a competitive process in which the city is a product to be sold on the international marketplace. Residents and businesses alike, in this view, will choose to settle in the city that offers their preferred “bundle” of goods, services, opportunities, and tax policies. But this view tends to overstate both the degree of policy flexibility that cities have to tailor their “pitch” to outsiders, as well as the degree to which a city’s lifeblood depends purely on attracting an influx of outside dollars, talent, and investment. An opposing view is that local economic development is fundamentally parochial and redistributive, and its purpose is to meet the needs of the residents and businesses that are already part of the fabric of the city. This view has its own limits, underemphasizing the ways in which a locality’s prosperity and well-being are interrelated with regional and even global trends and flows.

More recently, however, a third view of economic development has emerged, which combines aspects of these two accounts. As Richard Schragger argues, we should view cities not as products to be sold on a competitive marketplace, nor as purely closed systems in which to pursue redistributive policies, but rather as path-dependent processes. In other words, cities evolve dynamically, through an interplay between already-existing local conditions and inheritances, and regional or global forces. The task of economic development policy, then, is to find a way to tap into the rooted, existing features of a city, and leverage those local resources.

Anchor institutions like universities are the quintessential lever for economic development in this process-oriented view. These institutions are fundamentally rooted in their communities; they cannot simply leave town the way other kinds of businesses can. They also have large ripple effects on their local communities based on who they hire, who they contract with, and how they employ their own resources. Anchor institutions thus represent valuable engines for local economic development—engines that, if redirected strategically, can help lift up the larger communities in which they are based.

These two features of Rethinking Communities – its democratic and participatory origins, and its focus on leveraging anchor institutions to accelerate local economic development – make it one of many contemporary heirs to the kind of innovation that came out of the first Gilded Age. Now, as then, there is an effort to take a more purposeful and directed approach to economic policy to help create the conditions for collective well-being. Now, as then, there is a desire to approach this task in a self-consciously democratic and participatory manner. And now, as then, it is likely that the lessons learned from (and the activists inspired by) this effort can contribute to a longer-term and larger movement for democratic and economic reform – which is precisely what we need to navigate our way out of the challenges of this New Gilded Age.

Sabeel Rahman is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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What Ken Burns's Documentary on the Roosevelts Can Teach Us About Our Past and Ourselves

Sep 25, 2014David B. Woolner

A historical adviser to the film looks back at how the Roosevelts saved the American free enterprise system.

Ken Burns's superb documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, is in many ways a celebration of leadership, of the triumph of personal will over adversity, and of the belief in the age-old American story that each of us – no matter how burdened by life’s tragedies – has the capacity to accomplish great things.

A historical adviser to the film looks back at how the Roosevelts saved the American free enterprise system.

Ken Burns's superb documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, is in many ways a celebration of leadership, of the triumph of personal will over adversity, and of the belief in the age-old American story that each of us – no matter how burdened by life’s tragedies – has the capacity to accomplish great things.

The film also has much to say about the transformative nature of government: the idea, which all three Roosevelts shared, that it was the responsibility of government to serve as the primary guarantor of social and economic justice for all Americans – not just the privileged few at the top. It was this belief that formed the basis of Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism and Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, and this belief that helped inspire Eleanor Roosevelt’s efforts to craft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was ratified by the United Nations just three years after its 1945 founding.

What is often overlooked in this story is the role that all three of these remarkable leaders played in helping to preserve the American free enterprise system, of trying to mitigate the worst excesses of capitalism, not only out of a desire to protect the American people from exploitative labor practices or fraudulent financial dealings, but also out of a desire to protect our very way of life during an era when liberal capitalist democracy was under siege in much of the rest of the world. As the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr., once remarked, the twentieth century in many respects can be viewed as a struggle of ideologies, a time in which the anti-democratic forces of fascism and totalitarian communism were on the march, so that by January 1942 at the height of the Second World War, there were only a handful of democracies left on the planet.

In the rhetorically charged atmosphere of the mid 1930s, FDR’s critics alleged that the reforms he instigated under the New Deal were designed to take the country down the path to socialism. But nothing could be further from the truth. Social Security, unemployment insurance, and granting labor the right to organize were all inspired by the desire to provide the average American with a basic degree of economic security within the capitalist system. So too were the many financial reforms that brought us the likes of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The same argument could be made about Theodore Roosevelt, whose decision to take on such conglomerates as the Beef Trust or the Northern Securities Rail Company was driven by the desire not to destroy big business but to limit monopoly and restore the cut and thrust of the free market. In short, both men were motivated by the idea that the federal government had a responsibility to make capitalism work for the average American.

Eleanor Roosevelt concurred with these ideas, and in spite of her reputation as a left-leaning reformer, spent much of her considerable energy in the post-1945 world arguing in favor of the World War II monetary and trade reforms that helped launch the globalization of the world’s economy. In her May 21, 1945 "My Day" column, for example, ER spoke out in favor of the 1944 Bretton Woods accords which established the International Monetary Fund and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, later the World Bank. Here, she argued in favor of the stabilization of currencies, because in the past there had been much speculative trading in this area, which resulted in “economic warfare” that in time brings us to “shooting warfare.” And she had this to say about the establishment of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development:

Some foolish people will ask: Why do we have to concern ourselves with the development and reconstruction of the ruined countries? The answer is simple. We are the greatest producing country in the world. We need markets not only at home, but abroad, and we cannot have them unless people can start up their industries and national economy again and buy from us. If Europe or Asia falls apart because of starvation or lack of work for their people, chaos will result and World War III will be in the making. In that event, we know that we will have to be a part of it.

Hence, ER insisted that we needed “both the bank and the fund for our own security, as well as for that of the rest of the world.” She then urged her readers to write to their Senators and Congressmen in support of the treaty, for as she so eloquently put it:

Whether you are a farmer or a merchant, whether your business is big or little, you are personally affected by it. Even if you don't sell directly to a foreign country, you are indirectly affected – for the prosperity of the [foreign] country means your prosperity, and we cannot prosper without trade with our neighbors in the world of tomorrow.

As is so often the case, when we look back we see that the challenges of the past are not that different from the challenges we face today. Once again we face a world where the free-market system is in desperate need of reform; a world where income inequality has reached levels not seen since the gilded age; a world where the specter of long-term unemployment and limited opportunity has dimmed the hopes of an entire generation; a world where poverty and a lack of opportunity have given rise to anti-democratic extremists that threaten the very lives and well-being of millions. Yet sadly, and unlike the heady days of the first six decades of the twentieth century, our leaders in Washington seem incapable or unwilling to shape a response to these many challenges befitting the legacy of such great political figures as Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

A great deal of this can be attributed to the irresponsible behavior of many members of Congress, particularly among the members of the extreme right, whose obstructionist policies and rigid anti-government ideology have played a significant part in rendering the 113th Congress one of the least effective and least respected in American history.

But we should also never forget – as Ken Burns and his outstanding script writer Geoffrey Ward have reminded us through this outstanding film – that we too must share part of the blame. For as much as we may admire the leadership of the Roosevelts, none of their accomplishments would have been possible without the support of the American people. Leadership, after all, is a dynamic process that requires the cooperation of the both public figures and the public, and if we are living in an age that seems incapable of producing transformative government, we need to recognize that in a democracy it is the people who bear the final responsibility for their fate.  

Franklin Roosevelt perhaps put it best when he urged the American people to recognize that “government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and Senators and Congressmen and Government officials but the voters of this country.”

David B. Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. 

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Daily Digest - September 24: Students on Food Stamps Need Somewhere to Spend Them

Sep 24, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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On Campus (HuffPost Live)

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On Campus (HuffPost Live)

Caitlyn Becker speaks to Yvonne Montoya, President of the Santa Monica College chapter of the Campus Network, about her chapter's work to get food stamps accepted on campus. Her segment begins at 19:20.

New Deal Liberalism Lives On (WaPo)

Katrina vanden Heuvel, a member of the Roosevelt Institute's Board of Directors, says FDR-style liberalism is alive and well, pointing to leaders like Senator Elizabeth Warren and NYC's Mayor Bill de Blasio.

CEOs Get Paid Too Much, According to Pretty Much Everyone in the World (HBR)

Gretchen Gavett looks at new research on what people think the CEO pay gap should ideally be. Whether respondents felt strongly about CEO pay or not, their ideal ratios were very similar.

Fed Said to Warn Banks on Capital Charges on Leveraged Loans (Bloomberg News)

Craig Torres and Christine Idzelis report on increased Federal Reserve scrutiny of loans that lack stricter requirements that protect lenders. Earlier guidance hasn't slowed lending.

America Out of Whack (NYT)

Thomas Edsall asks a number of economists why, when the U.S. economy is growing so well, we haven't managed to ensure that some of the wealth is distributed to the lower and middle classes.

The Recovery That Left Out Almost Everybody (WSJ)

William Galston says the U.S. economy hasn't actually worked to improve the lives of average families since the end of the Clinton administration.

Now It’s Explicit: Fighting Inflation Is a War to Ensure That Real Wages for the Vast Majority Never Grow (Working Economics)

Josh Bivens looks at the discussion of a yet-unpublished paper from the Dallas Federal Reserve and points out that it essentially advises stopping progress on unemployment to limit inflation.

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Daily Digest - September 22: Minimum Wage Boost Would Trickle Up for All

Sep 22, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Pay Pressure (Financial Times)

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Pay Pressure (Financial Times)

In a survey of economists about how to jump-start wage growth, Roosevelt Institute Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz calls for fiscal stimulus, a minimum wage increase, and tax incentives for labor-intensive investment.

Holder Launches Historic Study on Police Bias (Melissa Harris-Perry)

As Saturday's guest host, Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren speaks with the Director of the Center for Policing Equity about the significance of the Attorney General's new plan to reduce bias.

Paul Ryan May Have Found a Trick to Make His Tax Plan Add Up (TNR)

Danny Vinik explains how dynamic scoring will allow Rep. Ryan to claim that his tax reform plan is mathematically possible while remaining revenue-neutral.

Climate Change is War – and Wall Street is Winning (AJAM)

Nathan Schneider writes that corporate influence has been too strong in international discussions of how to fight climate change, and argues that our economic system must shift to save the planet.

Is Obama Going Easy On Banks That Break the Law? (In These Times)

David Sirota looks at the reduction of sanctions on Credit Suisse, and says that this action by the administion suggests that some financial institutions are being treated as above the law.

Why Poor Students Struggle (NYT)

For lower-income college students at elite universities, the academics aren't a problem, writes Vicki Madden, but the social differences between classes make life on campus difficult.

New on Next New Deal

Ken Burns’s New Documentary Reveals the Human Side of the Roosevelts – And Our Deep Connection To Their Legacy

Roosevelt Institute President and CEO Felicia Wong praises The Roosevelts for depicting these giants of progressive policy with a humanity that helps us understand why they pushed for change.

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Ken Burns’s New Documentary Reveals the Human Side of the Roosevelts – And Our Deep Connection To Their Legacy

Sep 19, 2014Felicia Wong

The success of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History highlights the people behind the policies that reshaped America.

The success of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History highlights the people behind the policies that reshaped America.

As the CEO of the Roosevelt Institute, I am reminded almost daily about the very personal connection people feel to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. The extraordinary critical acclaim for the new Ken Burns documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History makes it clear just how widespread that feeling is.

But it also prompts me to consider why, in an age when politicians are vilified and Congress’s approval rating hovers around 14 percent, political figures from almost a century ago are being rediscovered and embraced as heroes.

Part of the answer, of course, is the film’s unique portrayal of the Roosevelts. Burns and his writing partner, Geoffrey Ward (also a proud Trustee of the FDR Presidential Library, which we support here at the Roosevelt Institute), have crafted a narrative that combines grand actors on the world stage with a very grounded depiction of the Roosevelts as people with hopes, fears, and demons to overcome. Although the film has received some criticism for focusing too much on personality and glossing over policy, the knowledge that such momentous change was not won effortlessly by remote historical figures but achieved by individuals who faced complex external and internal struggles should serve as a powerful inspiration to everyone working in politics today.

Another part of the answer is that the Roosevelts were, in fact, uniquely bold figures in American history. Franklin and Eleanor combined two things that are notoriously tough to bring together: big ideas and action. They had the ability to get things done, to experiment and tinker and move things around until they worked. Franklin set a north star, grounded in progressive values, for massive reforms to America’s corporations and banks; labor law and protections; and the social safety net. Eleanor’s boldness extended to the world stage, where she was a leader in the creation of the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to the most difficult intersections of race and class in mid-century America.

Along the way, they made mistakes – sometimes profound ones. (It is deeply meaningful to me, personally, that Eleanor pressured Franklin strongly to oppose the internment of Japanese Americans.) But when they succeeded, as they often did, they did so in ways that permanently reshaped the country and the world for the better.

In today’s politics, broken promises are accepted with weary resignation, and weak compromises are often viewed as the best we can hope for. Just imagine the popularity of a president today who could lead a program like the Civilian Conservation Corps: enacted only 32 days after FDR’s inauguration, the program ultimately employed 2.5 million young men in more than 4,500 rural camps nationwide, planting 3 billion trees that remain integral to our landscape today. And imagine how much more confidence we would have if we saw in our elected officials FDR’s kind of political leadership, which, over the course of his presidency, drove the design and implementation of hundreds of solutions to deep systemic problems, from Social Security and Glass-Steagall to the Federal Music Project. These big ideas not only worked (mostly), but also persuaded the country to believe that talk would lead to action and action would lead to results.

And finally, I think a big part of the answer, also captured in Burns’s film, lies in what Roosevelt Institute Board Chair Anna Eleanor Roosevelt has called her grandfather’s “journey from patrician to American,” which is often forgotten in lionizing portrayals of FDR. The Roosevelts were born into a very wealthy family, but for his own post-presidency, FDR had envisioned a move to his home in Warm Springs, Georgia, the small rural town where, in the 1920s, he first found some improvement from the polio that afflicted him as a young man. The home he designed for himself in Warm Springs was modest, just six rooms – mostly a big porch. The most powerful man in the world dreamed of a life as a farmer that would allow him to spend time with his neighbors – a refreshing thought at a time when the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street has never spun faster.

Some have called Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt “traitors to their class.” As arresting a phrase as that is, it is more even more compelling to think about them another way: as examples that even the most privileged can learn and grow through their flaws and truly devote themselves to the common good. At the Roosevelt Institute, where we dedicate our time to the kinds of big, transformative economic and social policies that will further FDR and ER’s legacy today, we also need to pause to remind ourselves that it was the Roosevelts as human beings that made their big ideas come to life.

Felicia Wong is President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaWongRI.

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Daily Digest - September 15: Violence Against Women is Still a Threat, Abroad and at Home

Sep 15, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Hillary Clinton Seeks End to Gender Violence by Terrorist Groups (CBS News)

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Hillary Clinton Seeks End to Gender Violence by Terrorist Groups (CBS News)

Clinton also spoke about issues of violence against women in the U.S., reports Hannah Fraser-Chanpong, reiterating her stance that domestic violence requires criminal, not cultural, responses.

White House Photo Ops, Old School (NYT)

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow David Woolner says the new Ken Burns film The Roosevelts: An Intimate History highlights the interconnectedness of the lives of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor.

Shareholders Say, ‘Show Me The Money’ (In These Times)

David Sirota explains the fight over corporate political spending disclosures. A proposed Securities and Exchange Commission rule has significant public support – and plenty of corporate pushback.

  • Roosevelt Take: Roosevelt Institute Fellow Susan Holmberg looks at the costs and benefits of mandating corporate political spending disclosure.

Workers Go on Strike at Hammond Automotive Seats Plant (Chicago Tribune)

The workers are "tired of being treated like fast-food industry employees," writes Alexandra Chachkevitch. They are asking for the elimination of a salary cap instituted during the financial crisis.

Workers in Maine Buy Out Their Jobs, Set an Example for the Nation (Truthout)

Rob Brown, Noemi Giszpenc, and Brian Van Slyke explain why the creation of the Island Employee Cooperative in Deer Isle, Maine is a particularly groundbreaking achievement.

New on Next New Deal

How Much are Local Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuses Driven By the Feds? A Reply to Libertarians

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal counters libertarian arguments, showing that the profit motive is bottom-up: asset forfeiture in non-Federal cases is driven by local policy.

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Daily Digest - September 12: Students Shouldn't Go Hungry on College Campuses

Sep 12, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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How One Student is Fighting the College Hunger Crisis (MSNBC)

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How One Student is Fighting the College Hunger Crisis (MSNBC)

Ned Resnikoff profiles Yvonne Montoya, President of the Santa Monica College chapter of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network, and her work to get food stamps accepted on campus.

A Tour of the Roosevelt Family's New York (WSJ)

Sophia Hollander speaks with Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow David Woolner about the Roosevelt legacy in New York through fourteen sites across the state, in light of the upcoming Ken Burns documentary The Roosevelts.

Measuring the Impact of States’ Obamacare Decisions (WaPo)

Jason Millman looks at a new study on how costs varied for people buying insurance based on their states' approach to the Affordable Care Act. States with successful exchanges had the lowest costs.

Why Co-ops Are the Future of the American Economy (AJAM)

Worker-owned businesses should appeal to liberals and conservatives alike, writes Matthew Harwood, because conservatives see ownership as building self-sufficiency and liberals appreciate the higher wages.

The Inflation Cult (NYT)

The investors and economists who continue to insist that runaway inflation is coming to destroy the U.S. economy are a sign of just how polarized our society has become, writes Paul Krugman.

Allentown Bets Big to Shed its Former Image (Marketplace)

Tommy Andres looks at how tax incentives structured through a Neighborhood Improvement Zone have begun to revitalize Allentown's downtown.

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Daily Digest - September 5: What Can Obama Learn from the Roosevelts?

Sep 5, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Roosevelts to the Rescue (NYT)

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Roosevelts to the Rescue (NYT)

In light of Ken Burns' upcoming documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, Timothy Egan considers what President Obama could learn from the Roosevelts' lives and political challenges.

Cities Will Lead the Nation’s Technological Advances (FedScoop)

John Breeden II speaks with Roosevelt Institute Fellow Susan Crawford about her new book, The Responsive City, co-authored with Stephen Goldsmith.

Fast Food Strikes Hit 150 US Cities (MSNBC)

The strikes expanded to include acts of civil disobedience, such as sit-ins outside restaurants, that led to arrests in five cities across the country, report Ned Resnikoff and Michele Richinick.

Economic Inequality Continued To Rise In The U.S. After The Great Recession (FiveThirtyEight)

Ben Casselman and Andrew Flowers present their initial takeaways from the Federal Reserve's triennial Survey of Consumer Finances, which confirms that the recovery was only for the wealthy.

Do Fast-Food Strikes Actually Work? (The Guardian)

Heidi Moore says that the labor movement is seeing greater support as fast food strikes grow and incorporate other low-wage workers seeking a living wage and a union.

What to Watch on Jobs Day: It’s No Longer a Jobless Recovery but It’s Undoubtedly a Wage-Growth-Less Recovery (Working Economics)

Josh Bivens and Elise Gould explain why wage growth has been so very slow in the recovery, and how lack of wage growth impacts other aspects of economic growth.

New on Next New Deal

Taxes Are Never Just a Class Issue

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network National Director Joelle Gamble argues that tax reform isn't the end-all solution to economic inequality, because it can't fix racial inequality.

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