Daily Digest - August 2: Higher Wages Don't Destroy Fast Food

Aug 2, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

What Happens When Fast Food Actually Pays (The Daily Beast)

Daniel Gross examines burger chains that pay their brand new employees a living wage. Unsurprisingly, high wages can lead to more prosperous companies, and those companies aren't getting the bad press about wage-related strikes.

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

What Happens When Fast Food Actually Pays (The Daily Beast)

Daniel Gross examines burger chains that pay their brand new employees a living wage. Unsurprisingly, high wages can lead to more prosperous companies, and those companies aren't getting the bad press about wage-related strikes.

The Uneven Geography of America's Fast Food Jobs (Atlantic Cities)

Richard Florida breaks down data on the wages and growth of fast food jobs by city. The fast food workers who are striking aren't making the worst wages in their industry; if their wages aren't livable, what does that say for those making even less?

Why Do the People Raising Our Children Earn Poverty Wages? (The Nation)

E. Tammy Kim looks at childcare workers who accept public subsidies, which often results in poverty wages. When subsidies assume only thirty hours of care a week, these care providers don't have many options if they want to keep their clients.

How Vast Error-Prone Databases Are Trashing Our Economic Lives (TAP)

Amy Traub reports on how major databases are keeping people from opening bank accounts and preventing them from accessing credit at the right rates. These mistakes affect too many people, and on too broad a scale, to be ignored.

Wall Street Decimates Black America (Salon)

Laura Gottesdiener explains how the foreclosure crisis has disproportionately hit black neighborhoods, which were targeted by banks for predatory loans. Now, these houses remain empty, and the banks take no responsibility for the effect on the neighborhood.

Sex, Money and Gravitas (NYT)

Paul Krugman argues that the sexist campaigns against Janet Yellen for Fed Chair are also full of bad economic analysis. The Fed hasn't been causing runaway inflation, and Yellen has proven to be far better at economic forecasting then her hawkish peers.

Obama Finally has a Good Economic Idea – too Bad No One's Listening (The Guardian)

Heidi Moore thinks that Obama's grand bargain is a sign that he's ready to make allies instead of enemies in the GOP. Unfortunately, the Republicans don't seem to care either way, so they're still ignoring his ideas.

New on Next New Deal

Delaying Abortions: A Harmful Consequence of the Pro-Life Agenda

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Andrea Flynn and Director of Research Susan Holmberg point out that the results of laws restricting abortion access don't follow their proponents' intentions. These laws increase unwanted pregnancies, abortions, and abortions later in pregnancy.

Share This

What Mia Macy's Victory Means for Transgender Workers' Rights

Jul 29, 2013Tyler S. Bugg

The Justice Department's ruling in Mia Macy's lawsuit against the ATF is a significant win in the fight against employment discrimination for the transgender community, but there's still more to be done.

The Justice Department's ruling in Mia Macy's lawsuit against the ATF is a significant win in the fight against employment discrimination for the transgender community, but there's still more to be done.

It has been over a year since I last wrote about Mia Macy and her lawsuit, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), and the state of employment discrimination for transgender people like Macy. To review, Macy was tentatively offered a position as a ballistics expert at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), pending a background check, and the background check revealed her gender transition. The hiring manager then told Macy the position was being eliminated due to budget cuts and hired another applicant. Her high-profile lawsuit against the ATF for rescinding this job offer has resulted in a long and arduous battle in court. Now her work has finally paid off.

Earlier this month, a Justice Department decision was handed down in favor of Macy, ruling that the ATF broke the law in not offering her a job as a ballistics expert -- a move the ruling says was motivated by direct discrimination based on her gender identity. The ruling requires the ATF to again offer the job to Macy, pay her back pay and benefits with interest, and cover all of her legal costs. Even better, the decision stipulates that the agency must implement its own anti-discrimination policies to be applied to all its other employees and future job applicants.

Macy’s hallmark challenge was already considered a victory last year when the complaint she filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) prompted the agency to independently rule that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act bans employers from discriminating based on an employee’s gender identity or expression. Her Department of Justice suit win this year only extends and celebrates the progress she began in ultimately ensuring a more just and equitable body of employment law for the United States labor force.

The benefit this has for employer-employee relations, employee productivity, and general satisfaction with job environment safety and morale is obvious. I have written previously about why more inclusive employment anti-discrimination protections are both sound social policy and sound business policy – employees and job applicants feel less anxiety about their workplace environments, employers reap the benefits of happier and more qualified applicant pools, and diverse workplaces encourage a respectful and productive mode of labor that better mirrors the country’s diversity outside of the workplace.

All of those outcomes remain true with Macy’s DOJ win. What is unique about Macy’s case is that, for the first time, the federal government is backing challenges of private and government employers by the transgender community. The DOJ decision in Macy’s case represents a significant precedent in the government’s interest in and implementation of more aggressive anti-discrimination policies, especially at the federal level.

The federal government’s sudden activism on behalf of transgender employees is curious, then, as it also continues to stall the passing of ENDA at the federal level. While Macy’s DOJ win is significant, it only applies to her individual case and to her particular employer. ENDA, as a more comprehensive plan to protect all of the nation’s employees, is a preventative measure, and remains absolutely necessary. If the government wishes to remain consistent with the spirit of its findings in Macy’s case, then it must move forward in considering ENDA. Its passage will be an important next step for extending benefits of protection past Macy to all other persons fired, not hired, or denied a promotion or salary increase as a result of their gender and sexuality identity statuses.

However, even ENDA has its limits, and they point to the failings of employment and labor law in this country more broadly. While ENDA certainly has a symbolic significance and a legal usefulness for transgender employees, real change cannot only rely on the jurisdictions of the court system. The effectiveness of employment protections for everyone, not just transgender people, is less than satisfactory. While proponents of ENDA push its necessity by pointing out that it is legal to fire someone for identifying as transgender in 34 states, in the 49 states where “at-will” employment law is the overarching standard, it is completely legal to fire someone for any reason at all and without explanation.

As we move away from Macy’s case, it is economically, socially, and legally important that transgender activists mobilizing within workers’ rights causes have a stake in the larger, more structural state of employment law for everyone, and vice versa. It is only when we finds the ways to consider all critiques across the board that we can find the change-oriented solution that the transgender community has been fighting for throughout Macy’s legal battles. With this shared understanding, we can build the most just and equitable workplaces for transgender people, and indeed all people.

Tyler S. Bugg is a New York-based writer, activist, and artist and an alumnus of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

Share This

Why the Right Doesn’t Really Want Euro-Style Reproductive Health Care

Jul 24, 2013Andrea Flynn

U.S. conservatives want Europe's abortion restrictions, but they oppose the generous systems and legal exceptions that support women's health.

U.S. conservatives want Europe's abortion restrictions, but they oppose the generous systems and legal exceptions that support women's health.

Earlier this month, Texas lawmakers witnessed and participated in passionate debates about one of the nation's most sweeping pieces of anti-choice legislation. That legislation, known as SB1, was initially delayed by Wendy Davis's now-famous filibuster and was signed into law by Governor Rick Perry last week during a second special legislative session. It bans abortions after 20 weeks, places cumbersome restrictions on abortion clinics and physicians, and threatens to close all but five of the state’s 42 abortion clinics. Throughout the many days of hearings anti-choice activists relied on religious, scientific, and political evidence to argue that the new Texas law is just and sensible.

Many of those arguments are tenuous at best, but it is the continued reference to European abortion laws that most represent a convenient cherry-picking of facts to support the rollback of women’s rights. Many European countries do indeed regulate abortion with gestational limits, but what SB1 supporters conveniently ignore is that those laws are entrenched in progressive public health systems that provide quality, affordable (sometimes free) health care to all individuals and prioritize the sexual and reproductive health of their citizens. Most SB1 advocates would scoff at the very programs and policies that are credited with Europe’s low unintended pregnancy and abortion rates.

Members of the media have also seized on European policies to argue that Texas lawmakers are acting in the best interest of women. Soon after the passage of SB1, Bill O’Reilly argued that “most countries in the world have a 20-week threshold,” and Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, wrote, “It’s not just that Wendy Davis is out of step in Texas; she would be out of step in Belgium and France, where abortion is banned after 12 weeks.”

It’s hard to imagine any other scenario in which O’Reilly and Lowry, and most conservative politicians and activists, would hold up European social policies as a beacon for U.S. policy. After all, the cornerstones of Europe’s women’s health programs are the very programs that conservatives have long threatened would destroy the moral fabric of American society. One cannot compare the abortion policies of Europe and the United States without looking at the broader social policies that shape women’s health.

Both Belgium and France have mandatory sexuality education beginning in elementary school (in France parents are prohibited from removing their children from the program). France passed a bill earlier this year that allows women to be fully reimbursed for the cost of their abortion and guarantees girls ages 15 to 18 free birth control. Emergency contraception in both countries is easily accessible over the counter, and in Belgium the cost of the drug is reimbursed for young people and those with a prescription. Both countries limit abortion to the first trimester but also make exceptions for cases of rape, incest, and fetal impairment, to preserve woman’s physical or mental health, and for social or economic reasons. None of these exceptions are included in the new Texas law, and I’d guess it would be a cold day in hell before the likes of O’Reilly and Lowry advocate for more expansive health policies or for including such exceptions in abortion laws.  

But it would be wise if they did. This availability of preventative care contributes to the overall health and wellness of women in Europe and enables them to make free and fully informed decisions about their bodies over the course of their lifetimes. The demonization and lack of progressive sexual health policies in Texas, and in the United States more broadly, drives high rates of unintended pregnancy, teen pregnancy, maternal mortality, sexually transmitted infections, and abortion. 

Unfortunately, Texas couldn’t be further from France or Belgium when it comes to the care it provides to women and families before, during, and after delivery, as I’ve written about before. The Texas teen birth rate is nearly nine times higher than that of France and nearly 10 times higher than that of Belgium. Nearly 90 percent of all teens in France and Belgium reported using birth control at their last sexual intercourse, compared with only 53 percent in Texas. The infant mortality rate in Texas is twice that of Belgium and France. The poverty rate among women in Texas is a third higher than that of women in Belgium and France, and the poverty rate among Texas children is 1.5 times higher. Less than 60 percent of Texas women receive prenatal care, while quality care before, during, and after pregnancy is available to nearly all women throughout Europe.  

None of those hard facts were compelling enough to amend – let alone negate – the new law. It seems impossible these days to find a common ground between anti- and pro-choice individuals, but if conservatives wanted to have a conversation about enacting European-style sexual and reproductive health policies in the United States, that just might be something that could bring everyone to the same table. The more likely scenario is that once conservatives have plucked out the facts that help advance their anti-choice cause, they will promptly return to tarring and feathering Europe’s socialized health system.

Andrea Flynn is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. She researches and writes about access to reproductive health care in the United States and globally. She is on Twitter at @dreaflynn.

 

Woman and doctor banner image via Shutterstock.com

Share This

Daily Digest - July 23: Your Internet Access Isn't So Great

Jul 23, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

What Verizon's Op-Eds Won't Tell You About America's Slow, Costly Internet Access (Next New Deal)

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

What Verizon's Op-Eds Won't Tell You About America's Slow, Costly Internet Access (Next New Deal)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Susan Crawford responds to two recent New York Times op-eds that claimed the U.S. has great high-speed internet access - and criticized her work. She says the U.S. is paying more for lower speeds and lower quality access.

Rush Limbaugh on Slavery in America (The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren speaks about the right-wing response to President Obama's Friday speech on race. He argues that when the right complains about discussions of race, they ignore facts and history in a way that is dangerous for the black community.

Inequality, Mobility and the Policy Agenda They Imply (NYT)

Jared Bernstein argues that when Miles Corak pushes for accessible healthcare and high-quality early childhood education to improve income mobility, he doesn't go far enough. Education can't overcome the inequalities that require structural change.

Mr. President, Have Pity on the Working Man (Bill Moyers)

Bill Moyers and Michael Winship contend that President needs to do something about the millions of federally subcontracted jobs that have very low pay and no benefits. With an executive order, he could mandate a living wage for these government employees.

Subsidizing Poverty (TAP)

Harold Meyerson explains the problem with enterprise zones, which subsidize the wages of jobs that businesses might have created anyway. In San Bernadino, CA, the subsidized jobs were almost all low-wage, to the point where residents were subsidizing workers' poverty.

Why Won’t Obama Pay His Interns? (Buzzfeed)

Evan McMorris-Santoro reports on the work of Mikey Franklin, who is pushing back against the federal government's unpaid internship culture. Franklin can't accept a White House that pushes minimum wage increases without paying interns minimum wage.

Here’s how Goldman Sachs is making your beer more expensive (WaPo)

Lydia DePillis gives a step-by-step explanation of how Goldman Sachs's involvement in the aluminum market is raising prices. Goldman owns aluminum warehouses, and the cost of rent to store aluminum is eventually passed to buyers, inflating the price of the commodity.

New on Next New Deal

Delaware Welcomes Corporations That Put People Ahead of Profits

Roosevelt Institute Research Intern Suzanna Fritzberg explains how new legislation creating benefit corporations in Delaware could mean a major expansion of this form of social entrepreneurship, thanks to Delaware's corporation-friendly atmosphere.

Share This

Why Trayvon Is Inspiring America to Put Stand Your Ground Laws on Trial

Jul 16, 2013Naomi Ahsan

The Zimmerman verdict could spark a nationwide movement to challenge "self-defense" laws that support racism.

The Zimmerman verdict could spark a nationwide movement to challenge "self-defense" laws that support racism.

Immediately following George Zimmerman’s acquittal on all charges brought against him for killing Trayvon Martin, mass protest began in the streets and on social media, evoking the great mobilizations for civil rights in American history. While many trials invite public scrutiny and speculation through intense media coverage, few others so clearly illustrate the racial tensions that connect the present with the embarrassing and ugly pieces of America’s past. The Zimmerman trial offers a status update on systemic racism in the United States and calls for attention to and action on Stand Your Ground laws. It also reminds those working for social justice of what litigation can and cannot accomplish, challenges us to consider how public safety measures can serve all Americans, and plainly illuminates the need for greater legal and political empowerment of young men who look like Trayvon Martin.

Stand Your Ground bills have been passed by over 30 states, based on a campaign that began in Florida in 2005 led by the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). (ALEC went on to disavow advocacy for Stand Your Ground in 2012.) These laws provide immunity from criminal and civil proceedings to people who “stand their ground” and use potentially deadly force instead of retreating if they reasonably believe doing so is necessary to “prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” They are alternatively known as “Castle” laws based on Castle doctrine, which traditionally provides for defense in a home and is named based on the saying, “a man’s home is his castle.”

While Stand Your Ground was not invoked by the Zimmerman defense, the case has raised the law’s profile because it is the reason that Zimmerman was not arrested until almost two months after he killed Trayvon Martin. Florida Stand Your Ground law requires police to have specific evidence refuting a self-defense claim in order to arrest someone claiming self-defense as the basis of their violent actions, shifting accountability to law enforcement from people who use force in the name of “self-defense.” There is a growing realization that Stand Your Ground serves to promote anti-black racism — both in who is perceived as threatening and whose claims of feeling threatened are legitimized.

According to a federal lawsuit brought by Markel Hutchins that challenges Georgia’s Stand Your Ground law, some courts have “accepted the race of a victim as evidence to establish the reasonableness of an individual’s fear in cases of justifiable homicide.” The lack of specificity in circumstances justifying the use of deadly force leads to Americans of color being disproportionately targeted by such force. Stand Your Ground is more likely to be applied in cases of white-on-black crime. Hutchins also claims that the law does not equally protect him and other black Americans acting in self-defense. According to the Tampa Bay Times, people in Florida who kill a black person walk free 73 percent of the time in Stand Your Ground cases, while those who kill a white person go free 59 percent of the time.

Marissa Alexander, an African American woman, was not protected by Florida’s Stand Your Ground law when confronting her ex-husband, who was violating his restraining order and had a documented record of domestic violence. For firing a single warning shot as she “stood her ground,” even though the shot did not injure anyone, Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Stand Your Ground thus failed to serve a black woman who was being threatened by a man who was known to have abused her.

The Zimmerman verdict is not only disappointing because it seems wrong that killing Trayvon Martin, who was innocently walking along in his hoodie on the wrong street at the wrong time, should go unpunished. It is also because an institution of justice seems to have affirmed the racism in Zimmerman’s suspicion and pursuit of Trayvon – racism evidenced by Zimmerman’s history of dozens of “emergency calls“ to the police to report suspicious black men, including one incident where the “suspicious black male” in question was between seven and nine years old.

But while offensive to contemporary American morality, racism is not a crime. In fact, racist thought and speech are protected in American courts of law by the First Amendment, an application of Voltaire’s principle of “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Our foundational legal doctrines are ill-suited to today’s tasks of addressing issues of race advantages and disadvantages to achieve an authentically equal and just society. This is one reason that our courts are often not ideal tools for policy change.

The Department of Justice is investigating Trayvon Martin’s killing, and the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights launched an investigation into the racial bias of Stand Your Ground laws in May. While a lawsuit proceeds to challenge Stand Your Ground in Georgia, there is also the possibility that the Martin will family will bring a civil suit to challenge the constitutionality of Stand Your Ground in Florida.

In the meantime, grief, outrage and worry in reactions to the Zimmerman trial could prove effective and meaningful in motivating new race consciousness and appropriate action. Americans can civically engage and establish a productive discourse to scrutinize Stand Your Ground; increase awareness of the law and of related rights, especially in communities of color; and get involved in state legislative processes to demand alternative policies on public safety and permissible use of guns. The creeping proliferation of Stand Your Ground legislation and its flaws, which are only now starting to be recognized, underlines the importance of these steps as well as the need to increase the diversity of Americans who vote and serve the country as attorneys and elected officials.

Naomi Ahsan is a Research and Program Associate at the Center for Community Change and is Director of Programming for the DC chapter of Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline.

 

Hand with gun image via Shutterstock.com.

Share This

New Texas Abortion Law Could Be Worst Yet for Poor Women

Jul 3, 2013Andrea Flynn

The controversial SB 5 is the latest case of the Texas GOP pushing anti-abortion measures that marginalize low-income women.

The controversial SB 5 is the latest case of the Texas GOP pushing anti-abortion measures that marginalize low-income women.

Some 5,000 orange-clad men and women invaded the Texas capital in Austin on Monday in an emotional and enthusiastic show of support for reproductive rights. They faced off with Republican lawmakers still resolved to pass SB 5, the very bill limiting abortion access that was defeated last week after Senator Wendy Davis’s 11-hour filibuster. Yesterday, nearly 2,000 people showed up to testify against the bill as it was considered by the Texas House Affairs Committee, which approved it 8-3.

This latest effort to roll back women’s rights in Texas has met fierce opposition and resolve from Texans and other Americans who recognize the value of women’s health care. “When you silence one of us, you give voice to the millions who will continue to demand our lives, our choices, our independence,” Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, reminded us at Monday’s rally.

It has also highlighted the deep gulf between the lived experiences of women in Texas, particularly low-income women, and lawmakers who have inserted themselves into decisions that should only be made by women and their physicians.

Monday’s protest took place as Texas lawmakers convened for a second special session called by Governor Rick Perry. The bill they’re considering would make abortion after 20 weeks illegal, impose onerous requirements on abortion providers, and demand that all clinics meet costly and burdensome building requirements. If passed, 37 of the state’s 42 abortion providers will be forced to close their doors. This despite the fact that 79 percent of Texans believe abortion should be available to a woman under varying circumstances, while only 16 percent believe abortion should never be permitted.

This is just the latest in a seemingly never-ending assault on Texas women. In 2011, lawmakers decimated the Texas family planning program with a two-thirds budget cut that closed nearly 60 family planning clinics across the state and left almost 150,000 women without care.  Soon after, they also barred Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health clinics defined as “abortion affiliates” from the Women’s Health Program (WHP), a state Medicaid program on which thousands of poor women rely. Governor Perry insisted that former WHP patients could find new providers and claimed there were plenty to bridge the gap, but that simply is not the case. Clinics across Texas have reported a sharp drop in patients, and guess that former WHP clients are receiving no care at all.

To suggest so cavalierly that women simply find new providers is evidence that Republican lawmakers simply don’t understand – or don’t care about – the socioeconomic realities that shape women’s lives. Otherwise, they would recognize the absurdity of forcing women to navigate an increasingly complex health system to find new providers and then traverse hundreds of miles to receive basic care and services. This is a stark illustration of the privilege gap that exists between policymakers and the people they represent. 

After it became clear that the warnings of public health experts – who testified that such policies would impose a heavy economic toll on the state, result in negative health outcomes, and increase the demand for abortion – were becoming reality, lawmakers last month restored family planning funding to the 2014 budget. While this is certainly good news, returning to pre-2011 funding levels still leaves nearly 700,000 women without access to care and so far has enabled only three of the nearly 60 shuttered clinics to re-open. And even before the 2011 budget cuts, only one-third of the state’s 1 million women in need of family planning services received them through the state program. A provider shortage will persist for the foreseeable future; it is no easy task to reopen a clinic once it has shuttered its facility, released its staff, sold all its equipment, and sent its patients files elsewhere. 

If the current legislation were to pass, nearly all the state’s abortion providers would be forced to close. The majority of those are clinics that not only offer abortion services, but also provide contraception, STD testing, and cancer screenings for poor women. Many of those clinics are located in areas that are already bearing the brunt of family planning clinic closures (see map below). The few clinics that would remain open in Texas are located in urban areas, leaving women in rural Texas with even fewer health care options than they currently have. 

(Abortion data: New York Times and Planned Parenthood. Family Planning data: University of Texas Population Research Center)

What are women—especially poor women—to do? Women in Texas already face heavier burdens than women in many other states. Texas has one of the nation’s highest teen birth rates and percentages of women living in poverty. It has a lower percentage of pregnant women receiving prenatal care in their first trimester than any other state. It also has the highest percentage of uninsured children in the nation and provides the lowest monthly benefit for Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) recipients (an average of $26.86 compared to the national average of $41.52). And soon the majority of women may not have access to abortion care at any stage of their pregnancy.

Governor Perry’s policies have marginalized women who already bear the heavy weight of so many inequities. His latest efforts will only marginalize them further.

This anti-abortion legislation will not prevent women from getting abortions. It will simply push them across the border and into unsafe facilities like those operated by Kermit Gosnell. It’s passage will add to the fury that has escalated over the past three years as women have lost access to breast exams, birth control, and abortion services while being told it is for their own good. These lawmakers fail to understand that the full range of reproductive health services, including the ability to access an abortion, is absolutely central to women’s ability to lead happy, healthy, and productive lives – an ability that is itself essential to the strength of families, communities, states, and our nation.

On Monday, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards reminded the crowd in Austin of the old adage that you can measure a country by how well it treats its women. The same is true for Texas.  “We settled the prairie. We built this state. We raised our families,” said the ever-feisty daughter of former Texas governor and progressive icon Ann Richards. “We survived hurricanes and tornados, and we will survive the Texas legislature, too.”

Andrea Flynn is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. She researches and writes about access to reproductive health care in the United States and globally.

 

Rick Perry image via Shutterstock.com.

Share This

Daily Digest - June 27: The Economy After DOMA

Jun 27, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Why Marriage Equality Is Good For The Economy And The Budget (ThinkProgress)

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Why Marriage Equality Is Good For The Economy And The Budget (ThinkProgress)

Bryce Covert brings back a 2004 CBO study of what it would mean for the federal government to recognize same-sex marriage. The study says it could reduce the incidence of same-sex couples living in poverty and generate an increase in tax revenues.

The DOMA Decision on Gay Marriage Could Speed up Employment Protection for Gays and Lesbians Too (Quartz)

Tim Fernholz thinks that the Supreme Court's decision on DOMA could mean easier passage for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which already has bipartisan support. Marriage and ENDA could dramatically change the status of LBGT people in our economy.

The Class-Based Future of Affirmative Action (TAP)

Richard Kahlenberg suggests that with the Supreme Court's ruling on Fisher v. University of Texas, progressives should call Republicans' bluff and put their support behind class-based affirmative action, which will still help substantial numbers of minority applicants.

Congrats, CEOs! You’re Making 273 Times the Pay of the Average Worker. (WaPo)

Lydia DePillis breaks down the major points in the Economic Policy Institute's new white paper on CEO compensation. The data is compelling evidence in the discussion of the continued growth of income inequality.

Ixnay on ‘Say on Pay’ (ProPublica)

Jesse Eisinger sees the say-on-pay provision of Dodd Frank as a failure: shareholders are voting on the pay packages of top executives, but they are approving compensation that is higher than ever before, which was not the goal.

The Economy Is Even More Sluggish Than We Thought (MoJo)

Kevin Drum reports that after revising their announcement of GDP for the first quarter of 2013 down already, from 2.5% to 2.4%, the Bureau of Economic Analysis has released a further revision to 1.8%, proving that this isn't much of a recovery.

Which States Are Winning the Recovery? (The Atlantic)

Jordan Weissmann looks at research from the New York Federal Reserve that shows that the jobs crisis is still worst in the states hit hardest in 2009. The states that are succeeding are the ones with natural resources, plus New York and Wall Street.

Who Frets Most About Student Debt (NYT)

Annie Lowrey looks at new data from the Urban Institute that shows who is most worried about paying off their student loans. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the strongest indicators of concern about repaying are employment status and income.

Share This

What’s New in the New Surveillance State?

Jun 11, 2013Mike Konczal

I had a post at Wonkblog over the weekend, “Is a democratic surveillance state possible?”

In some sense, the issue of the government spying and collecting data on its citizens isn’t a new problem. One of my favorite tweets of the past week was Brooke Jarvis noting "Collapsing bridges alongside massive spy networks... Ah, the Jeffersonian ideal of government."

The United States has been tracking, observing, and surveilling its citizens for centuries. That includes that long-standing form of communication, the mail. As Senator Lindsey Graham just said, “In World War II... you wrote a letter overseas, it got censored...If I thought censoring the mail was necessary, I would suggest it.”

From the Census in the Constitution to the Cold War spy network (including the NSA, founded in 1952 through the Executive Branch), maybe this should be seen as a continuation of an old issue rather than a brand new one. But I think there are genuinely new and interesting problems with the 21st century Surveillance State and the brand new digital technologies that create the foundations for it. What’s new about the new surveillance state?

1. It’s always on and always has been. Old acts of surveillance had to be triggered and were forward-looking. However, we now spend so much of our lives online, and that is always being recorded. As the leaker Edward Snowden said in his interview, “they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you've ever made, every friend you've ever discussed something with. And attack you on that basis to sort to derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer."

To the extent that old surveillance was capable of going back, it was by checking old records or interrogating old sources. And there the concept of amnesia comes into play.

2. It will never forget. “Amnesia” is a normal front line of defense. People forget things. Clear memories, stories, and ideas become grey. Photos and documents get lost with time. Trying to piece together history will necessarily involve a lot of missing gaps and poor recollection.

Not with the surveillance state. Cheap digital storage means that clear, easily replicable data will exist for the foreseeable future.

3. It scales easily. If the FBI was keeping records on 100 people in the 1950s, and it then wanted to monitor 1,000 people, it would probably need 10 times as many resources. Certainly it wouldn’t be effortless to scale up that level of surveillance.

As we can see in the age of Big Data and fast computing, this is no longer the case. The resource costs of accessing your phone’s metadata history versus all phones’ metadata history is going to be (somewhat) trivial. And the fact that there’s no amnesia means that you’ll always have access to that extra data.

4. It’s designed to be accessible. As Orin Kerr emphasizes, digital data here isn’t collected or surveilled via the human senses. A person can’t simply “peek” into your email the way they could peek at your physical mail. Instead devices need to be installed to access and make sense of this data. Private sector agents will do this, because it is part of their business model to make this information accessible. These access points will also be accessible to government agents under certain conditions - part of the major debate over the PRISM program is under what conditions the government can actually access these devices.

5. It’s primarily driven by the private sector. Broadly speaking, measures of democratic accountability and constitutional protections do not extend to the private sector. More on this soon, but things like the Freedom of Information Act to the Administrative Procedure Act to our whole regime of transparency laws do not apply to outside businesses. The government has worked with private groups before on surveillance, but here it is in large part driven by private agents, both for contractors and information gathering.

6. It predicts the future for individuals using mass data. Surveillance has generally used mass data to either predict or determine future courses of action on a mass scale. For instance, Census data is used to allocate federal money, or predict population growth. Alternatively, it uses individual data to analyze individual behavior - asking around and snooping to dig up dirt on someone, for instance.

The surveillance state, however, allows for using mass data to predict the actions of individuals and groups of individuals. This is what generates your Netflix and Amazon suggestions, but it is also now providing the basis for government actions. As Kieran Healy notes, this would have been interesting back in the American Revolution.

This is distinct from the normal Seeing Like a State (SLS) critique of how states see their citizens. Some think states produce “a logic of homogenization and the virtual elimination of local knowledge...an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids and heroic simplification” (SLS 302, 8). But rather than flatten or homogenize its citizens when observed under bulk conditions, it actually creates a remarkably individualized image of what its citizens are up to.

What else is missing, or shouldn't have been listed? You could view these as a technological evolution of what was already in place, and in some ways that would make sense. But the technology has opened a brand new field. This existed before the War on Terror, and will likely exist afterwards; dealing with the laws and institutions behind this new state is crucial. As the technology has changed, so must our laws.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

  

 

I had a post at Wonkblog over the weekend, “Is a democratic surveillance state possible?”

In some sense, the issue of the government spying and collecting data on its citizens isn’t a new problem. One of my favorite tweets of the past week was Brooke Jarvis noting "Collapsing bridges alongside massive spy networks... Ah, the Jeffersonian ideal of government."

The United States has been tracking, observing, and surveilling its citizens for centuries. That includes that long-standing form of communication, the mail. As Senator Lindsey Graham just said, “In World War II... you wrote a letter overseas, it got censored...If I thought censoring the mail was necessary, I would suggest it.”

From the Census in the Constitution to the Cold War spy network (including the NSA, founded in 1952 through the Executive Branch), maybe this should be seen as a continuation of an old issue rather than a brand new one. But I think there are genuinely new and interesting problems with the 21st century Surveillance State and the brand new digital technologies that create the foundations for it. What’s new about the new surveillance state?

1. It’s always on and always has been. Old acts of surveillance had to be triggered and were forward-looking. However, we now spend so much of our lives online, and that is always being recorded. As the leaker Edward Snowden said in his interview, “they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you've ever made, every friend you've ever discussed something with. And attack you on that basis to sort to derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer."

To the extent that old surveillance was capable of going back, it was by checking old records or interrogating old sources. And there the concept of amnesia comes into play.

2. It will never forget. “Amnesia” is a normal front line of defense. People forget things. Clear memories, stories, and ideas become grey. Photos and documents get lost with time. Trying to piece together history will necessarily involve a lot of missing gaps and poor recollection.

Not with the surveillance state. Cheap digital storage means that clear, easily replicable data will exist for the foreseeable future.

3. It scales easily. If the FBI was keeping records on 100 people in the 1950s, and it then wanted to monitor 1,000 people, it would probably need 10 times as many resources. Certainly it wouldn’t be effortless to scale up that level of surveillance.

As we can see in the age of Big Data and fast computing, this is no longer the case. The resource costs of accessing your phone’s metadata history versus all phones’ metadata history is going to be (somewhat) trivial. And the fact that there’s no amnesia means that you’ll always have access to that extra data.

4. It’s designed to be accessible. As Orin Kerr emphasizes, digital data here isn’t collected or surveilled via the human senses. A person can’t simply “peek” into your email the way they could peek at your physical mail. Instead devices need to be installed to access and make sense of this data. Private sector agents will do this, because it is part of their business model to make this information accessible. These access points will also be accessible to government agents under certain conditions - part of the major debate over the PRISM program is under what conditions the government can actually access these devices.

5. It’s primarily driven by the private sector. Broadly speaking, measures of democratic accountability and constitutional protections do not extend to the private sector. More on this soon, but things like the Freedom of Information Act to the Administrative Procedure Act to our whole regime of transparency laws do not apply to outside businesses. The government has worked with private groups before on surveillance, but here it is in large part driven by private agents, both for contractors and information gathering.

6. It predicts the future for individuals using mass data. Surveillance has generally used mass data to either predict or determine future courses of action on a mass scale. For instance, Census data is used to allocate federal money, or predict population growth. Alternatively, it uses individual data to analyze individual behavior - asking around and snooping to dig up dirt on someone, for instance.

The surveillance state, however, allows for using mass data to predict the actions of individuals and groups of individuals. This is what generates your Netflix and Amazon suggestions, but it is also now providing the basis for government actions. As Kieran Healy notes, this would have been interesting back in the American Revolution.

This is distinct from the normal Seeing Like a State (SLS) critique of how states see their citizens. Some think states produce “a logic of homogenization and the virtual elimination of local knowledge...an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids and heroic simplification” (SLS 302, 8). But rather than flatten or homogenize its citizens when observed under bulk conditions, it actually creates a remarkably individualized image of what its citizens are up to.

What else is missing, or shouldn't have been listed? You could view these as a technological evolution of what was already in place, and in some ways that would make sense. But the technology has opened a brand new field. This existed before the War on Terror, and will likely exist afterwards; dealing with the laws and institutions behind this new state is crucial. As the technology has changed, so must our laws.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

  

 

Share This

We Already Tried Libertarianism - It Was Called Feudalism

Jun 11, 2013Mike Konczal

Bob Dole recently said that neither he nor Ronald Reagan would count as conservatives these days. It’s worth noting that John Locke probably wouldn’t count as a libertarian these days, either.

Michael Lind had a column in Salon in which he asked, “[i]f libertarians are correct in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in the early twenty-first century is organized along libertarian lines?” EJ Dionne agrees. Several libertarians argue that the present is no guide, because the (seasteading?) future belongs to libertarians.

I’d actually go in a different direction and say the past belonged to libertarians. We tried libertarianism for a long time; it was called feudalism. That modern-day libertarianism of the Nozick-Rand-Rothbard variety resembles feudalism, rather than some variety of modern liberalism, is a great point made by Samuel Freeman in his paper "Illiberal Libertarians: Why Libertarianism Is Not a Liberal View." Let’s walk through it.

Freeman notes that there are several key institutional features of liberal political structures shared across a variety of theorists. First, there’s a set of basic rights each person equally shares (speech, association, thought, religion, conscience, voting and holding office, etc.) that are both fundamental and inalienable (more on those terms in a bit). Second, there’s a public political authority which is impartial, institutional, continuous, and held in trust to be acted on in a representative capacity. Third, positions should be open to talented individuals alongside some fairness in equality of opportunity. And last, there’s a role for governments in the market for providing public goods, checking market failure, and providing a social minimum.

The libertarian state, centered solely around ideas of private property, stands in contrast to all of these. I want to stick with the libertarian minimal state laid out by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (ASU), as it's a landmark in libertarian thought, and I just re-read it and wanted to write something about it. Let’s look at how it handles each of the political features laid out above.

Rights. Libertarians would say that of course they believe in basic rights, maybe even more than liberals! But there’s a subtle trick here.

For liberals, basic rights are fundamental, in the sense that they can’t be compromised or traded against other, non-basic rights. They are also inalienable; I can’t contractually transfer away or otherwise give up my basic rights. To the extent that I enter contracts that do this, I have an option of exit that restores those rights.

This is different from property rights in specific things. Picture yourself as a person with a basic right to association, who also owns a wooden stick. You can sell your stick, or break it, or set it on fire. Your rights over the stick are alienable - you don’t have the stick anymore once you’ve done those things. Your rights to the stick are also not fundamental. Given justification, the public could regulate its use (say if it were a big stick turned into a bridge, it may need to meet safety requirements), in a way that the liberal state couldn’t regulate freedom of association.

When libertarians say they are for basic rights, what they are really saying is that they are for treating what liberals consider basic rights as property rights. Basic rights receive no more, or less, protection than other property rights. You can easily give them up or bargain them away, and thus alienate yourself from them. (Meanwhile, all property rights are entirely fundamental - they can never be regulated.)

How is that possible? Let’s cut to the chase: Nozick argues you can sell yourself into slavery, a condition under which all basic liberties are extinguished. (“[Would] a free system... allow him to sell himself into slavery[?] I believe that it would.” ASU 331) The minimal libertarian state would be forced to acknowledge and enforce contracts that permanently alienate basic liberties, even if the person in question later wanted out, although the liberal state would not at any point acknowledge such a contract.

If the recession were so bad that millions of people started selling themselves into slavery, or entering contracts that required lifelong feudal oaths to employers and foregoing basic rights, in order to survive, this would raise no important liberty questions for the libertarian minimal state. If this new feudal order were set in such a way that it persisted across generations, again, no problem. As Freeman notes, “what is fundamentally important for libertarians is maintaining a system of historically generated property rights...no attention is given to maintaining the basic rights, liberties, and powers that (according to liberals) are needed to institutionally define a person’s freedom, independence, and status as an equal citizen.”

Government. Which brings us to feudalism. Feudalism, for Freeman, means “the elements of political authority are powers that are held personally by individuals, not by enduring political institutions... subjects’ political obligations and allegiances are voluntary and personal: They arise out of private contractual obligations and are owed to particular persons.”

What is the libertarian government? For Nozick, the minimal state is basically a protection racket (“protection services”) with a certain kind of returns to scale over an area and, after some mental cartwheels, a justification in forcing holdouts in their area to follow their rules.

As such, it is a network of private contracts, arising solely from protection and arbitration services, where political power also remains in private hands and privately exercised. The protection of rights is based on people’s ability to pay, bound through private authority and bilateral, individual contracts. “Protection and enforcement of people’s rights is treated as an economic good to be provided by the market,” (ASU 26) with governments as a for-profit corporate entities.

What doesn’t this have? There is no impartial, public power. There’s no legislative capacity that is answerable to the people in a non-market form. There’s no democracy and universal franchise with equal rights of participation. Political power isn’t to be acted on in a representative capacity toward public benefit, but instead toward private ends. Which is to say, it takes the features we associate with public, liberal government power and replaces them with feudal, private governance.

Opportunity. Liberals believe that positions should be open for all with talent, and that public power should be utilized to ensure disadvantaged groups have access to opportunities. Libertarianism believes that private, feudal systems of exclusion, hierarchy, and domination are perfectly fine, or at least that there is no legitimate public purpose in checking these private relationships. As mentioned above, private property rights are fundamental and cannot be balanced against other concerns like opportunity. Nozick is clear on this (“No one has a right to something whose realization requires certain uses of things and activities that other people have right and entitlements over.” ASU 238).

Do we need more? How about Rand Paul, one of the leading advocates for libertarianism, explaining why he wouldn’t vote for the Civil Rights Act: “I abhor racism. I think it’s a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant — but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership.”

Markets. The same goes for markets, where Nozick is pretty clear: no interference. “Taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor.” (ASU, 169) Nozick thinks it is likely that his entitlement theory will lead to an efficient distribution of resources and avoid market problems, but he doesn’t particularly require it and contrasts himself with end-staters who assume it will. “Distribution according to benefits to others is a major patterned strand in a free capitalist society, as Hayek correctly points out, but it is only a strand and does not constitute the whole pattern of a system of entitlements.” (ASU 158)

I sometimes see arguments about how bringing “markets” into the provision of government services makes it more libertarian. Privatizing Social Security, bringing premium support to Medicare, or having vouchers for public education is more libertarian than the status quo. Again, it’s not clear to me why libertarians would think taxation for public, in-kind provisioning is a form of slavery and forced labor while running these services through private agents is not.

You could argue that introducing markets into government services respects economic liberty as a basic liberty, or does a better job of providing for the worst off, or leaves us all better off overall. But these aren’t libertarian arguments; they are the types of arguments Nozick spends Part II of ASU taunting, trolling, or otherwise bulldozing.

Three last thoughts. (1) Do read Atossa Abrahamian on actually existing seasteading. (2) It’s ironic that liberalism first arose to bury feudal systems of private political power, and now libertarians claim the future of liberalism is in bringing back those very same systems of feudalism. (3) Sometimes libertarians complain that the New Deal took the name liberal, which is something they want to claim for themselves. But looking at their preferred system as it is, I think people like me will be keeping the name “liberal.” We do a better job with it.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

  

 

Bob Dole recently said that neither he nor Ronald Reagan would count as conservatives these days. It’s worth noting that John Locke probably wouldn’t count as a libertarian these days, either.

Michael Lind had a column in Salon in which he asked, “[i]f libertarians are correct in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in the early twenty-first century is organized along libertarian lines?” EJ Dionne agrees. Several libertarians argue that the present is no guide, because the (seasteading?) future belongs to libertarians.

I’d actually go in a different direction and say the past belonged to libertarians. We tried libertarianism for a long time; it was called feudalism. That modern-day libertarianism of the Nozick-Rand-Rothbard variety resembles feudalism, rather than some variety of modern liberalism, is a great point made by Samuel Freeman in his paper "Illiberal Libertarians: Why Libertarianism Is Not a Liberal View." Let’s walk through it.

Freeman notes that there are several key institutional features of liberal political structures shared across a variety of theorists. First, there’s a set of basic rights each person equally shares (speech, association, thought, religion, conscience, voting and holding office, etc.) that are both fundamental and inalienable (more on those terms in a bit). Second, there’s a public political authority which is impartial, institutional, continuous, and held in trust to be acted on in a representative capacity. Third, positions should be open to talented individuals alongside some fairness in equality of opportunity. And last, there’s a role for governments in the market for providing public goods, checking market failure, and providing a social minimum.

The libertarian state, centered solely around ideas of private property, stands in contrast to all of these. I want to stick with the libertarian minimal state laid out by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (ASU), as it's a landmark in libertarian thought, and I just re-read it and wanted to write something about it. Let’s look at how it handles each of the political features laid out above.

Rights. Libertarians would say that of course they believe in basic rights, maybe even more than liberals! But there’s a subtle trick here.

For liberals, basic rights are fundamental, in the sense that they can’t be compromised or traded against other, non-basic rights. They are also inalienable; I can’t contractually transfer away or otherwise give up my basic rights. To the extent that I enter contracts that do this, I have an option of exit that restores those rights.

This is different from property rights in specific things. Picture yourself as a person with a basic right to association, who also owns a wooden stick. You can sell your stick, or break it, or set it on fire. Your rights over the stick are alienable - you don’t have the stick anymore once you’ve done those things. Your rights to the stick are also not fundamental. Given justification, the public could regulate its use (say if it were a big stick turned into a bridge, it may need to meet safety requirements), in a way that the liberal state couldn’t regulate freedom of association.

When libertarians say they are for basic rights, what they are really saying is that they are for treating what liberals consider basic rights as property rights. Basic rights receive no more, or less, protection than other property rights. You can easily give them up or bargain them away, and thus alienate yourself from them. (Meanwhile, all property rights are entirely fundamental - they can never be regulated.)

How is that possible? Let’s cut to the chase: Nozick argues you can sell yourself into slavery, a condition under which all basic liberties are extinguished. (“[Would] a free system... allow him to sell himself into slavery[?] I believe that it would.” ASU 331) The minimal libertarian state would be forced to acknowledge and enforce contracts that permanently alienate basic liberties, even if the person in question later wanted out, although the liberal state would not at any point acknowledge such a contract.

If the recession were so bad that millions of people started selling themselves into slavery, or entering contracts that required lifelong feudal oaths to employers and foregoing basic rights, in order to survive, this would raise no important liberty questions for the libertarian minimal state. If this new feudal order were set in such a way that it persisted across generations, again, no problem. As Freeman notes, “what is fundamentally important for libertarians is maintaining a system of historically generated property rights...no attention is given to maintaining the basic rights, liberties, and powers that (according to liberals) are needed to institutionally define a person’s freedom, independence, and status as an equal citizen.”

Government. Which brings us to feudalism. Feudalism, for Freeman, means “the elements of political authority are powers that are held personally by individuals, not by enduring political institutions... subjects’ political obligations and allegiances are voluntary and personal: They arise out of private contractual obligations and are owed to particular persons.”

What is the libertarian government? For Nozick, the minimal state is basically a protection racket (“protection services”) with a certain kind of returns to scale over an area and, after some mental cartwheels, a justification in forcing holdouts in their area to follow their rules.

As such, it is a network of private contracts, arising solely from protection and arbitration services, where political power also remains in private hands and privately exercised. The protection of rights is based on people’s ability to pay, bound through private authority and bilateral, individual contracts. “Protection and enforcement of people’s rights is treated as an economic good to be provided by the market,” (ASU 26) with governments as a for-profit corporate entities.

What doesn’t this have? There is no impartial, public power. There’s no legislative capacity that is answerable to the people in a non-market form. There’s no democracy and universal franchise with equal rights of participation. Political power isn’t to be acted on in a representative capacity toward public benefit, but instead toward private ends. Which is to say, it takes the features we associate with public, liberal government power and replaces them with feudal, private governance.

Opportunity. Liberals believe that positions should be open for all with talent, and that public power should be utilized to ensure disadvantaged groups have access to opportunities. Libertarianism believes that private, feudal systems of exclusion, hierarchy, and domination are perfectly fine, or at least that there is no legitimate public purpose in checking these private relationships. As mentioned above, private property rights are fundamental and cannot be balanced against other concerns like opportunity. Nozick is clear on this (“No one has a right to something whose realization requires certain uses of things and activities that other people have right and entitlements over.” ASU 238).

Do we need more? How about Rand Paul, one of the leading advocates for libertarianism, explaining why he wouldn’t vote for the Civil Rights Act: “I abhor racism. I think it’s a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant — but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership.”

Markets. The same goes for markets, where Nozick is pretty clear: no interference. “Taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor.” (ASU, 169) Nozick thinks it is likely that his entitlement theory will lead to an efficient distribution of resources and avoid market problems, but he doesn’t particularly require it and contrasts himself with end-staters who assume it will. “Distribution according to benefits to others is a major patterned strand in a free capitalist society, as Hayek correctly points out, but it is only a strand and does not constitute the whole pattern of a system of entitlements.” (ASU 158)

I sometimes see arguments about how bringing “markets” into the provision of government services makes it more libertarian. Privatizing Social Security, bringing premium support to Medicare, or having vouchers for public education is more libertarian than the status quo. Again, it’s not clear to me why libertarians would think taxation for public, in-kind provisioning is a form of slavery and forced labor while running these services through private agents is not.

You could argue that introducing markets into government services respects economic liberty as a basic liberty, or does a better job of providing for the worst off, or leaves us all better off overall. But these aren’t libertarian arguments; they are the types of arguments Nozick spends Part II of ASU taunting, trolling, or otherwise bulldozing.

Three last thoughts. (1) Do read Atossa Abrahamian on actually existing seasteading. (2) It’s ironic that liberalism first arose to bury feudal systems of private political power, and now libertarians claim the future of liberalism is in bringing back those very same systems of feudalism. (3) Sometimes libertarians complain that the New Deal took the name liberal, which is something they want to claim for themselves. But looking at their preferred system as it is, I think people like me will be keeping the name “liberal.” We do a better job with it.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

  

 

Jousting knights image via Shutterstock.com

Share This

After the Senate’s Gun Control Failure, FDR Points the Way Forward

Apr 19, 2013David B. Woolner

The gun lobby may have won the latest legislative battle, but that doesn't mean the American people should stop fighting for change.

[W]e have learned lessons in the ethics of human relationships—how devotion to the public good, unselfish service, never-ending consideration of human needs are in themselves conquering forces.

The gun lobby may have won the latest legislative battle, but that doesn't mean the American people should stop fighting for change.

[W]e have learned lessons in the ethics of human relationships—how devotion to the public good, unselfish service, never-ending consideration of human needs are in themselves conquering forces.

Democracy looks to the day when these virtues will be required and expected of those who serve the public officially and unofficially. -FDR, Rochester, MN, August 18, 1934

In the wake of the Senate’s refusal to advance legislation that would have expanded background checks for gun purchasers, President Obama gave a brief but impassioned speech in which he promised “to speak plainly and honestly” to the American people about how a bill that had the support of 90 percent of the public could not make it through the U.S. Congress. After all, the president continued, the legislation was bipartisan and designed merely “to extend the same background check rules that already apply to guns purchased from a dealer to guns purchased at shows or over the internet.” The bill, he said, showed “respect for gun owners” and “respect for the victims of gun violence”; it represented “moderation and common sense.” Moreover, a majority of United States senators voted in favor of the measure, and yet it still went down to defeat, blocked by a minority “who caved to the pressure” of the well-financed gun lobby and “started looking for an excuse—any excuse—to vote ‘no.’”

The president called this “shameful” and noted that thanks to the “willful lies” of the NRA and its allies and the “continuing distortion of Senate rules,” a minority was able to block the majority from passing a common-sense measure that would “make it harder for criminals and those with severe mental illnesses to buy a gun.” Such obstructionist tactics were far less common during the New Deal era, but FDR’s appeals to the American people to never stop fighting for progress may be the key to breaking the Senate’s current logjam.

This is not the first time President Obama has made reference to the frustration he and many other Americans feel about the relentless tendency of a minority of senators to block action by the Senate as a whole. In an equally passionate section of his recent State of the Union Address, the president pleaded again and again with Congress, not necessarily to pass the gun legislation he favored, but simply to bring the measures he outlined on gun violence to a vote because the people of Newtown, Aurora, Oak Creek, Tucson, Blacksburg, and “the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence” deserved it.

Although he did not refer to it by name, what the president is referencing here is the ever-increasing use of the filibuster by the minority party in the Senate—in this case the Republican Party—to thwart the will of the majority. Filibusters used to be a rarity. During Franklin Roosevelt’s 12-year tenure as president, for example, the filibuster was used a total of six times, including twice in the 1930s to block anti-lynching legislation. But thanks to rule changes that took place in 1975, it is now much easier for senators to use the filibuster or even the threat of a filibuster to stop legislation from coming before the Senate for an actual up or down vote.

Ironically, the changes that were instituted by the Senate leadership at that time—including a reduction in the number of votes needed to close off debate from 67 to 60 and the removal of the need for the senators involved to actually be on the floor of the Senate—were expected to make it easier—not harder—to bring legislation forward. But the effect has been just the opposite. This is especially true with respect to the removal of the need to be present in the Senate chamber, since this change has meant that virtually every piece of legislation (with the exception of budget legislation) requires a 60-vote supermajority to move forward in the Senate. 

Prior to the 1990s, the historical association of the filibuster as an exceptional measure kept the number of uses relatively low. But since the 1990s the use of the filibuster by both parties has increased dramatically, averaging 34 per year. And in the past six years, the Republican minority has used the filibuster to block or stall the Senate’s business, including the ratification of federal judges and other top government officials, over 170 times.

As President Obama noted in his remarks in the Rose Garden on the Senate’s failure to move the gun control provisions forward, a number of senators have characterized their blocking move as a “victory.” But given the Constitution’s unequivocal language about majority rule in the Senate (not to mention the fact that there is no mention of the filibuster) and polling data that shows 9 out of 10 Americans support expanding background checks for gun purchases, the president is right to ask, “a victory for who? A victory for what? ...It begs the question, who are we here to represent?”

He is also right to urge the American people to act on their frustration in the one place where they can truly make a difference—in the voting booth. The president’s insistence that we can still bring about meaningful change to reduce gun violence so long as we “don’t give up on it,” demand action from our representatives, and when action is not forthcoming, “send the right people to Washington,” is not unlike the advice that FDR gave the American people in the dark days of the mid-1930s. We should remember that FDR’s efforts to use government to affect such meaningful reforms as Social Security, unemployment insurance, or the regulation of the stock market also elicited fierce opposition from a small but vocal minority that claimed these measures were an affront to the American people’s basic liberties.

But in response to these shrill efforts to stifle reform by attacking government, FDR had a simple answer. As he told an audience gathered in Marietta, Ohio in 1938:

Let us not be afraid to help each other—let us never forget 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.

I believe that the American people, not afraid of their own capacity to choose forward-looking representatives to run their government, want the same cooperative security and have the same courage to achieve it, in 1938, as in 1788. I am sure they know that we shall always have a frontier—of social and economic problems—and that we must always move in to bring law and order to it. In that confidence I am pushing on. I am sure that the people of the Nation will push on with me.

President Obama is right. The effort to bring about meaningful reform of the nation’s gun laws is not over, and if this Congress refuses to listen to the American people, then the voters have every right to send new representatives to Washington who will. But given the power and wealth of such anti-government special interest groups as the NRA, President Obama, like Franklin Roosevelt before him, will need to keep reminding the American people that government is indeed “ourselves,” and if we do not want it to become “an alien power over us,” each of us will need to take our responsibility to vote seriously. As things stand right now, the very essence of our democracy may depend on it. 

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

Share This

Pages