Hillary Clinton's Rooseveltian Challenge: Carrying Forward the Four Freedoms

Jun 19, 2015Anna Eleanor Roosevelt

It’s important that Hillary Clinton chose a place that honors my grandfather to officially launch her campaign and unveil her vision for our nation. In doing so, she sought to claim the Rooseveltian style of leadership and to position herself as the person who will carry forward the Roosevelt legacy of action, insight and advancement.

Now that the crowds have gone home, can she live up to the challenge she is setting for herself?

It’s important that Hillary Clinton chose a place that honors my grandfather to officially launch her campaign and unveil her vision for our nation. In doing so, she sought to claim the Rooseveltian style of leadership and to position herself as the person who will carry forward the Roosevelt legacy of action, insight and advancement.

Now that the crowds have gone home, can she live up to the challenge she is setting for herself?

My grandparents shaped our nation and the world in ways that were deeper and further reaching than almost any other figures of the 20th century. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt took America from the brink of total economic collapse and laid the groundwork for the greatest stretch of prosperity we’ve ever experienced.

They fought for democracy and against horrific regimes the likes of which the world may never have recovered from and used that moment to form a strong global alliance that is still in place today. They did all of this through the New Deal—by rewriting the rules of our capitalist system so that it works for everybody, and by building the postwar international system linking our economic and security interests as one global family.

They put rules in place to make capitalism work for the many as opposed to a few at the top—including rules for our financial system to protect consumers and control risk. The New Deal invested in America’s future through roads, bridges, modern electric systems, schools, and other essentials of a modern society. The Roosevelt administration expanded protections and rights for workers and families and gave them a seat at the bargaining table and ensured their security after retirement. They created a path to the middle class for millions of Americans.

But the Roosevelt record and so many of the strides we made through the New Deal have been undermined over the past 35 years as so many of those rules, investments, and protections have been rolled back. As a result, the American middle class lifestyle is almost as far out of reach today for most Americans as it was when my grandfather took office, and the future looks dim.

My grandparents took office four years after the Great Depression hit; our next president will be sworn in less than a decade after the Great Recession hit. The gap between those at the top and the rest of us is at a point last seen before the New Deal. Workers and America’s families face an entrenched wealthy class seeking to control who benefits from our economy and our political process. And there is growing unrest in the world as radical militants seek to undermine and destroy the very concept of democracy by taking advantage of our dysfunction.

Just as they were 83 years ago, the American people are desperately hungry for action and leadership to fix the imbalances in our economy and society.

A recent CBS/New York Times poll showed that the majority of Americans—rich and poor, men and women, Republicans and Democrats—agree that income, opportunity, and influence are unfairly concentrated at the top and that these disparities are growing. Further, Americans support government action to address this inequality and rewrite the rules of our economy.

For all my grandparents accomplished, so much of their work is still left unfinished. The beautiful park from which Secretary Clinton spoke celebrates the fundamental Four Freedoms my grandfather laid out in his 1941 speech as essential to democracy and to all of humanity: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. Yet for many in our own nation and across the world, those essential freedoms have yet to be fully realized. Another unfinished act proposed by my grandfather was a second bill of rights guaranteeing every American access to the central pillars of economic security—employment and a living wage, decent housing and medical care, public education, adequate food and clothing, and healthy leisure. The work of ensuring that the good ideas of the New Deal are equally available to women and to communities of color also remains incomplete.

Now is truly the time to hand the baton to the next great leader committed to completing this work.

If Hillary Clinton wants to follow in the footsteps of Franklin and Eleanor, then she must not just reflect on their legacy but carry forward their energetic leadership and relentless pursuit of bold solutions.

Clinton must summon the courage to once again fundamentally rewrite the rules of our economy, restore balance, challenge entrenched power, and seek a New Deal for the 21st century.

The American people will follow that kind of leadership.

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt is Chair of the Roosevelt Institute's Board and President and CEO of Goodwill NNE.

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The Politics of Responsibility – Not Envy

Feb 11, 2015Richard Kirsch

Americans are looking for politicians who ask the wealthy to take responsibility for their fair share of our society.

According to former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers – who is emerging as a key economic advisor to Hillary Clinton – the big political challenge in addressing economic inequality is not to embrace “a politics of envy.”

No, Mr. Summers – it’s not the politics of envy. It’s the politics of responsibility.

Americans are looking for politicians who ask the wealthy to take responsibility for their fair share of our society.

According to former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers – who is emerging as a key economic advisor to Hillary Clinton – the big political challenge in addressing economic inequality is not to embrace “a politics of envy.”

No, Mr. Summers – it’s not the politics of envy. It’s the politics of responsibility.

Summers was quoted in The New York Times about “what has emerged as a central question of her [Hillary Clinton’s] early presidential campaign strategy: how to address the anger about income inequality without overly vilifying the wealthy.”

The rich may imagine that blaming them for the struggles of the rest of us is driven by envy, but that’s their own conceit to make them feel good. Americans don’t resent the rich. While we might fantasize about winning the lottery, we are not consumed by jealousy. What most Americans understand is that they are struggling financially because the wealthy have rigged the economic and political system to benefit them at the expense of the rest of us. That’s not envy: it’s reality.

Summer’s formulation is meant to give intellectual cover to the real problem that Democrats like Clinton face: taking on those who finance their political campaigns. As the Times puts it: “And she [Clinton] must convince a middle class that feels frustrated and left behind that she understands its struggles, even as she relies heavily on the financial industry and corporate interests to fund her candidacy.”

There is a way to connect with people without “overly vilifying the wealthy.” The politics I would recommend to Clinton and other Democrats is that of responsibility.

There are two senses in which we can have a conversation about responsibility. The first is in explaining who is responsible for the financial squeeze on American working and middle class families. The second sense is to describe the kind of responsible behaviors that we can insist those who are responsible undertake to rebuild opportunity and security. The two are related, as one needs to be clear on who is responsible in order to identify how to fix the problem.

For example, wages are stagnant because corporations engaged in concerted strategies to limit the proportion of profits shared with workers, including: busting unions, rather than negotiating with them; shipping jobs overseas rather than paying higher wages to American workers; and aggressively using campaign contributions and lobbyists to undermine labor standards (minimum wage; overtime protection; etc) and labor laws. Corporations spent their huge profits on stock buybacks and CEO pay, rather than better compensation for workers.

Then there’s Wall Street’s culpability for using its political clout to shred financial regulations and oversight while engaging in the orgy of financial speculation and predatory lending that triggered the Great Recession.

Or tax policy, where corporations pushed to reduce their proportion of taxes paid to the federal government and by the wealthy so that they now pay a lower share of taxes than the middle-class. The result:  working and middle class families pay higher taxes and more for public services. A glaring example is the enormous rise in the cost of public higher education, as funding for public colleges and universities has been slashed.

The economic story about who is responsible requires acknowledging the democratic story. One thing that Americans on the left and right agree on is that the wealthy and corporate lobbyists have hijacked our democracy. That’s not cynical – it’s true. And it is a major reason why so many have given up on government working for them, or solving the problems they face.

None of this is “over-vilifying the wealthy.” It is describing the reality that Americans understand. As we saw in the election this past fall, Democrats who fail to identify those responsible will lose, as base Democrats stay home and white working-class voters turn to Republicans who assign blame to the government and the poor.

Identifying those who are responsible, as I’ve done above, drives the power of solutions to address those problems. For example, corporate suppression of wages is fixed by: revitalizing labor law and enforcement; raising labor standards like minimum wage and earned sick days; creating new workplace protections, like paid family leave; changing the rules on stock buy-backs; and limiting CEO compensation.

Addressing the adverse impact of Wall Street’s drive for speculative profits calls for taxing speculative trading, breaking up the big banks, stopping predatory lending, and providing new, publicly backed mechanisms for financing the residential and community lending that banks have abdicated.

Revenue raised from reversing tax breaks for corporations and the very wealthy can be used to invest in services families need like affordable child care and free community college, proposals in President Obama’s new budget.

Instead of vilifying the wealthy, the politics of responsibility can lift up corporate leaders and wealthy Americans who are examples of responsible behavior. President Obama has done this occasionally, for example, lauding Costco for its high pay and good benefits for big box stores. Last week, Aetna announced it was going to raise wages and benefits for its lowest-wage workers. Warren Buffett has a “rule” bearing his name, for proposing that the wealthy shouldn’t pay lower shares of taxes than their secretaries. Buffett’s example is particularly important because he’s calling for government action, not just setting an example through his own behavior.

The handful of corporate leaders who are acting responsibly are also acting in their own long-term self-interest. They understand that their businesses do better with workers who get paid decently. They realize they need an educated workforce. They may even comprehend that if workers get paid more, they’ll have more to spend, driving the economy forward.

The real emotional challenge in addressing inequality is not envy by the 99 percent for the 1 percent. It’s the very thin skins of the super-rich. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, born one of the 1 percent, understood this. FDR framed the question of wealth and responsibility brilliantly when he said:

Government can deal and should deal with blindly selfish men. But that is a comparatively small part – the easier part of our problem. The larger, more important and more difficult part of our problem is to deal with men who are not selfish and who are good citizens, but who cannot see the social and economic consequences of their actions in a modern economically interdependent community. They fail to grasp the significance of some of our most vital social and economic problems because they see them only in the light of their own personal experience and not in perspective with the experience of other men and other industries. They, therefore, fail to see these problems for the nation as a whole.

There were some prominent capitalists who supported New Deal programs, including banking reforms. But of the rest, FDR famously said, “I welcome their hatred.”

At the end of the day if Hillary Clinton or any other Democrat is going to champion the policies essential to rebuilding the middle-class and creating a new era of broad, sustainable prosperity, she will have to join FDR in applauding those businesses who worked for the benefit of all and welcoming the hatred of those who resist the fundamental changes needed to build an America that works for all of us.

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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Building a Better Community: MacArthur-Winning Campus Network Looks to the Future

Feb 10, 2015Joelle Gamble

The Campus Network's incredible community is what earned a MacArthur Award, and that's what we'll continue to invest in.

The Campus Network's incredible community is what earned a MacArthur Award, and that's what we'll continue to invest in.

Last Thursday, our social media accounts exploded with the news that the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network had received the 2015 Award for Creative and Effective Institutions from the MacArthur Foundation. The flurry of tweets, revelry, and community from students in Conway, Arkansas, from alumni working in the White House and city governments, and from supporters at foundations and organizations all over this country is demonstrative of what makes the Campus Network such a unique organization: our people.

At our core, the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network seeks to defy the expectations of young people in policy and politics. We are not apathetic. We are adaptive. We are not selfish. We are community-driven. We care about our people, their ideas, and their ability to be taken seriously. We believe there is power in a good idea connected to the right institutions, backed by a passionate community of civic actors.

With the right resources, the right model, and passion, we are capable of solving the complex problems plaguing our country today.

We’ve already seen the Campus Network’s impact on communities around the country:

  • Students designed, advocated for, and passed a Clean Air Act resolution in Ithaca, NY to cut greenhouse gas pollution.
  • They passed a Los Angeles Community College District amendment to mandate that community colleges accept food stamps on campuses, increasing access to healthy food for hundreds of students living below the poverty line.
  • They even collaborated with the director of emergency management in New Haven, CT and Alderman Salvatore E. DeCola to institute a Community Rating System that allowed residents in vulnerable neighborhoods to receive a discount on flood insurance premiums.

We’ve got a lot to be proud of. Our people have done phenomenal things. The way forward is to ramp up our investment in their success. Here’s what’s next:

Political engagement for our generation must be as creative and adaptive as we are.

The Campus Network is building a new standard for how civic and political engagement organizations connect with young people. Our generation’s engagement in politics must be as fluid, intuitive, and adaptive as the public sector’s. That is not to say that efficiency rules all but, instead, that the processes by which we take civic action must keep up with the creative, fast-paced, and customizable tendencies of young people. That’s why we are a networked organization. Now, we are updating our tools to match.

Our training and support system will utilize advances in technology, innovations in deliberative processes and design thinking, and a decentralized model. Meanwhile, our online training curriculum will be responsive to the diverse needs of our network of student chapters, molding to their campus and community needs while still tapping into the power we have as a collective.

Partnering toward greater collective impact

We believe that organizations cannot be everything to everyone. The sum of many different groups working well together creates the potential for broader impact. The most strategic partnerships we can build keep in mind our shared goals for building a more inclusive, equitable society, not just our own organizational goals.

With that, the Campus Network has the potential to partner to help amplify impact in the civic and political engagement space. We see ourselves as contributors to a wave of change, and we make the wave bigger. We do not try to surf a wave built by others. Whether it’s collaborating on child poverty policies with local doctors in Salem, North Carolina or contributing to an economic opportunity policy agenda with a Baltimore-based advocacy group, partnering for greater impact will be a centerpiece for how we connect our student chapters to the broader world.

We are investing in our alumni as they continue to pursue and lead policy change in their professional and civic lives. And we’re tapping into this powerful network of current students and alumni all across the country to help one another. With Roosevelters working in statehouses, city halls, and the upper echelons of the federal government, the Campus Network is multiplying its potential to change the role of young people in the policy process.

Policy + People = Power

Student policy thinkers have also been the doers in our network – passing city council resolutions, starting revolving loan funds, and lobbying in the halls of Congress. Now that our network is larger than ever before, we are systematizing our capacity to take policy action. Each year, our members produce hundreds of policy ideas, codified in memos and publications. By connecting these student ideas, through the students themselves, to decision makers and power-players, we are moving toward a greater amplification of the impact our chapters generate.

Through our growing organizational capacity, we are designing a robust support system for student projects throughout our network. In 2015, we will see even more student ideas in the halls of their state capitols and city halls and college President’s offices through an initiative called Policy By and For, launching on February 18. By directing intentional financial, communication, and strategic campaigning resources toward projects in the network, more young people will be situated to connect with decision-makers, armed with their own ideas. We are building toward better governance that is not just for our generation but shaped by our generation.

Fundamentally, we are a values-driven organization that is only as strong as the brilliant minds that run our chapters, research and produce policy ideas, start projects, and help strengthen our community of wonks. Through strategic investments in our chapters, tools, and partnerships, the Campus Network will continue to be a powerful leader for policy change for the next 10 years and beyond.

Joelle Gamble is the National Director of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

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Ten Years: Students Moving the Country Forward

Dec 18, 2014Taylor Jo Isenberg

After ten years of engaging young people in the political process, the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network continues to push for a system that works for all of us.

In an email to peers at Stanford University students on November 4, 2004, a student attempted to turn the tide on the malaise setting in after a disappointing election night for progressives. He captured the sentiment of the moment:

After ten years of engaging young people in the political process, the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network continues to push for a system that works for all of us.

In an email to peers at Stanford University students on November 4, 2004, a student attempted to turn the tide on the malaise setting in after a disappointing election night for progressives. He captured the sentiment of the moment:

Elections are a great time to shape the future of our country, but democracy is not something that happens every four years. We have a lot of work to do … we need to figure out how to explain what we care about in a coherent and convincing way, we need to develop a leadership network to match the conservatives of the next generation, and we need to keep public officials accountable to the issues that brought us all in.

In a follow-up email, he boiled it down to one simple statement: "I'm seeing a student-run think tank that will reinvigorate mainstream politics with a new generation's ideas."

In one of those rare occurrences that indicate that people might be on to something, others were incubating a similar concept. Two friends at Middlebury and Bates also felt compelled to respond to the political moment, and articulated their initial thoughts on a "think tank that unites college students across America under one political agenda aimed at taking back our democracy." Something similar was taking shape at Yale University.

The rest of the story is Roosevelt lore – the late nights, cross-country recruiting trips, the passionate debates about how best to position the organization to effectively elevate young people as a source for powerful ideas capable of policy change.

Yet what makes this particular story potent is that, ten years later, we celebrate not only that vision, but also today's reality. Thousands of students over the past ten years have worked tirelessly to actualize the initial vision that emerged from a bleak moment in our political history. We’ve published 600+ policy solutions that have been read over half a million times; trained thousands on how to challenge the fundamentals of our social, political, and economic systems; and catapulted young people as civic actors into key debates on the policy challenges of our day. Most importantly, the list of student and chapter successes on the ground is staggering in its breadth and depth of examples where young people have taken active ownership of their communities to bring about solutions with meaningful impact.

As a proud Roosevelter, I think we have much to celebrate. We took a few days last week to elevate our work in Washington, DC – a celebration that included a conversation with Representative Rosa DeLauro and members of Congress on how to look to best practices from Roosevelt’s model to effectively engage a new generation in policy and politics, a discussion on the Campus Network’s next ten years, and presentations at the White House featuring our student’s policy work. And of course, we hosted a party for 190+ alumni and supporters (a rockin’ one, according to keynote speaker Jared Bernstein).

Ten years is also a moment to look towards our future. It’s been a common refrain around our office and with our members that there are some unsettling parallels between the post-election reality ten years ago and the one we face today. Distrust of institutions is on the rise, policy priorities with high public support are thwarted by special interests, and our debate is seriously deprived (with a few exceptions) of a vision for what our country can build towards. We’re still in need of a shake up. The upside? Where things are happening, it’s often led or heavily supported by young people – from the ballot initiatives in the 2014 election to the sustained demand for accountability in our justice system.

It’s no secret that the political establishment is perplexed about young people. The media haphazardly jumps between two narratives, unable to decide if we’re self-absorbed, naïve and complacent in the face of our economic future, or the most civically minded quiet do-gooders since the Greatest Generation. Yet many of the major civic and political organizations are struggling with declining membership numbers. It’s not unheard of for organizations to develop “Millennial engagement strategies” to combat this problem.

We think the answer pretty simple: it’s about institutions and systems embracing the shifts instead of fearing them. From the moment they walk through the door, our members are asked to be a part of building something as equals. They’re given the tools to be the architects – and are instantly connected to a network of peers who support them. In a political system more interested in managing young people than tapping into their ingenuity and energy, Roosevelters come to us because they see the limitations of traditional pathways of engagement. As a result, the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network has remained a network that evolves and shifts as our students lead the way.

We aren’t, of course, the only ones – there is a vibrant ecosystem of organizations and movements that are also innovating and responding to the changing ways people of all ages are expressing their priorities. We could not be more proud of our alumni who have gone on to lead, participate in, and learn from these efforts.

Our successes also beg the question – what does this mean for the next ten years? How do we continue to amplify our strengths and evolve to reflect the moment, opportunities, and risks? That’s the conversation we’re having next – a conversation we want our alumni and supporters to be a part of. In 2015, the Roosevelt Institute will introduce our Alumni Network, which will focus on how to strengthen the Roosevelt community and its potential to influence social and economic priorities. If we are to respond to the call for an economic and democratic system that works for this century, it is going to take all of us.

It is now a Campus Network tradition to close any major convening or retreat with a passage from Jean Edward Smith’s FDR. It narrates President Franklin D. Roosevelt accepting the nomination at the 1936 Democratic National Convention. It’s a famous speech, most notably for his “This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny” quote. We start reading a little earlier – Smith sets the stage, with the country emerging from the worst of the Great Depression. Roosevelt walks to the platform on the arm of his son James. Smith details a powerful moment, where the President sees the poet Edwin Markham, author of Man with a Hoe, reaches out to greet him, and stumbles and falls. People rush to snap his braces back into place. He then proceeds to give the speech, which puts forward uncompromising and substantive statements on political and economic equality. It’s resolute, forceful, and clear – there are wrongs we must right, power that needs to be rebalanced, problems to be solved by the people.

I hope that our members take two things away from the passage. First, that every individual can’t do it alone. Second, that it is possible to stand for something that upsets the current balance of power – and to see the country move forward as a result. It’s a valuable reminder today, when all seems hopeless in the face of stagnation and entrenchment.

As we look to the next ten years, that’s the question Roosevelters will continue to ask, and will eventually answer. What do we stand for, and how will we move this country forward?

Taylor Jo Isenberg is the Vice President of Networks at the Roosevelt Institute.

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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 66: How Do We Make the Promise a Reality?

Dec 10, 2014Ariel SmilowitzMonika Johnson

Full implementation of the UDHR isn't a pipe dream, but it will require us to look beyond governments and international institutions.

Sixty-six years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who is responsible for upholding our most basic rights as humans? And are rights truly universal, or are they relative?

Full implementation of the UDHR isn't a pipe dream, but it will require us to look beyond governments and international institutions.

Sixty-six years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who is responsible for upholding our most basic rights as humans? And are rights truly universal, or are they relative?

These questions are indelibly inked into the fabric of our economy, society, and political system. Following World War II and the creation of the United Nations, the UDHR represented “the first global expression of rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled.” Championed by Eleanor Roosevelt, the widely accepted manifesto built upon the work of her husband, who famously declared that worldwide democracy should be founded upon four essential freedoms.

This primordial soup of rights-based ideology and dialogue resulted in the birth of the United Nations, and subsequently a handful of substantial treaties, frameworks, and guiding principles for our quest to define and maintain human rights globally.  

However, after decades of debate, we have yet to answer the ultimate question: who is responsible for ensuring this productive discourse is transformed into tangible action? Earlier this year, political scientist Stephen Hopgood proclaimed that we have reached “the end of human rights.” Hopgood argued that despite successful recognition of all human beings’ moral equivalence (no minor feat), little has been done to meld regional differences in interpretation and practice. In other words, our attempts to answer the critical question of implementation -- whether through international declarations like the UDHR, conventions like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or the creation of the UN Human Rights Council -- have fallen short.

As we reflect on the anniversary of the UDHR, perhaps it is time for us to reconsider and expand our approach toward human rights. Leaders of the classical human rights movement envisioned a world in which governments agreed on and multilaterally implemented a set of principles. Since that time, we have witnessed immense globalization, putting civil and political rights at odds with economic and social ones while introducing a set of new players, including multinational enterprise.

Consequently, these conventions, declarations, and institutions are not fully equipped to enforce human rights at every level of society. It is necessary for us to be inclusive of all influencers, including the private sector, non-state actors, and other organizations and groups, in order to truly realize a society in which every person can fulfill his or her full potential -- the dream of FDR’s progressivism and Eleanor’s Declaration of Human Rights.

Beyond Institutions: Global Enterprise and Human Rights

If governments and international institutions are unable to police human rights at every level, non-state actors must accept responsibility for integrating dignity into their practices. While vast ground remains to be covered, many companies are taking the lead on assessing their spheres of influence and ensuring their profits do not come at the expense of the choices and livelihoods of others.

One such company is Carlson, a corporation in the hotel and travel industries that works to stop human trafficking crimes. According to the International Labor Organization, 14.2 million people are victims of forced labor exploitation in economic activities worldwide. Despite 90 percent of countries enacting legislation criminalizing human trafficking under the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, it persists as tragic but preventable collateral damage of everyday economic and social activity.

Upon realizing that traffickers regularly use the hospitality industry to transport victims, Carlson used the valuable information provided by UNODC to be part of a solution. Now, they train their employees to recognize and report trafficking and have partnered with the State Department to educate travelers on the sexual exploitation of children.

For Ford Motor Company, being a more responsible business wasn’t as simple. Forced labor was buried deep in its supply chain, far from Detroit in Brazil’s charcoal mines, which provide an ingredient in steel production. When slave labor was exposed there in 2006, Ford was purchasing pig iron made from refined charcoal and using it in Cleveland to manufacture cars sold nationwide. The company took action to halt the use of pig iron and ensure its supply chain procured materials responsibly. Today, it collaborates with the State Department, the ILO, and the Brazilian National Pact to eradicate forced labor and improve transparency in manufacturing.

Like Ford’s model, supply chain innovation offers an opportunity for rising leaders to use the economic influence of private business to impact human rights. Both of these companies leveraged their own success to help solve a global problem. They confronted their spheres of influence and were willing to work with partners to develop solutions.

Similarly, Unilever, the maker of products including Dove soap and Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, partnered with Oxfam in 2013 on a supply chain analysis of its operations in Vietnam. The partners sought to better understand the implications of the UN Framework for Business and Human Rights and Global Compact Principles on global companies, and to improve conditions for thousands of workers along their manufacturing chain. Oxfam discovered that while Unilever was committed to high labor standards, policies ran only skin deep; Vietnamese managers were not equipped to implement them and lacked internal reporting mechanisms for violations.

Oxfam dissected Unilever’s business practices and concluded that while Unilever still had a long way to go, its positive corporate culture and long-term relationships with suppliers make it well positioned to confront the root causes of labor problems and authentically attempt to solve them.

Unilever, Ford, and Carlson did not sacrifice profits or shareholder obligations. Instead, they participated in a global conversation on human rights -- one aggregated by the UN Global Compact -- and underscored the importance of effective, cross-sector collaboration to reform their own practices.

A New Legacy for Our Generation

Each of these entities demonstrates the many spheres of influence at play in the pursuit of full human rights and dignity for all. What if every company took the same initiative to understand the social repercussions of its actions?

We need to rethink human rights by recognizing the power of our own choices upon others. Everyone is responsible for upholding human rights, whether as a part of your day job or as a member of a community. Seemingly benign actions -- how much you pay your employees or which charities you support -- are manifestations of your own unique interpretation of what dignity and rights mean.  

The UN, NGOs, and other global institutions have provided a priceless platform for dialogue on human rights. Without the consensus-building mechanisms they provide, there would be no Universal Declaration of Human Rights, no “naming and shaming” of human rights abusers, and no coordinated effort to stop the world’s cruelest atrocities.

And yet, as we continue our efforts to avert the "end of human rights," what will our own generation's legacy of implementation be? As this generation rises to power in public and private leadership roles, those at decision-making tables across the spectrum will have an opportunity to think critically about their own actions. The foundation and forums, from the UDHR to the UN Global Compact, certainly exist. Now, it’s up to us to ensure a future in which human rights are celebrated not only at the institutional level, but at a more personal, human level as well.

Ariel Smilowitz is a senior at Cornell University majoring in Government and the Northeast Regional Policy Coordinator for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

Monika Johnson is a member of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Alumni Advisory Committee.

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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

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

On Campus (HuffPost Live)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

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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