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:

  

 

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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.

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Jousting knights image via Shutterstock.com

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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.

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The WPA: A Flawed Model for Women, but an Inspiration for Progress

Apr 9, 2013Andrea Flynn

The New Deal left women behind, but it proved government can be a champion for the economically downtrodden.

The participation of women in the American work force has expanded dramatically in the 78 years since the Roosevelt administration launched the WPA to provide jobs to Americans out of work and on relief. Today women comprise nearly half the work force and typically work through the life cycle, not episodically, before and after childrearing, which for so long was considered their principal occupation.

The New Deal left women behind, but it proved government can be a champion for the economically downtrodden.

The participation of women in the American work force has expanded dramatically in the 78 years since the Roosevelt administration launched the WPA to provide jobs to Americans out of work and on relief. Today women comprise nearly half the work force and typically work through the life cycle, not episodically, before and after childrearing, which for so long was considered their principal occupation.

Today married, as well as single, women play a critical role in the U.S. economy. In nearly half the country’s dual income families, women earn as much or more than men. And as a percentage of the total, there are many more single women heading households today. For these reasons, today’s employment policies must be sensitive to gender in ways they never have been before.

Women were an afterthought of policymakers back in the Roosevelt years. Prevailing cultural mores still viewed work among married women as a threat to the sanctity and moral fabric of the family. New Dealers actually passed legislation (over the objection of Eleanor Roosevelt and others with feminist leanings) that prevented two workers in any one family from claiming a government salary, which meant that women during the Depression often were fired or forced to quit their jobs.

Women actually claimed only 13.5 percent of the 8.5 million total jobs created by the WPA, the majority of them in traditionally female occupations such as sewing, childcare and eldercare, teaching and education, etc. No surprise, these jobs paid less than other positions occupied by men, with WPA salaries ranging from only $20 to nearly $100 dollars per month. And most of those jobs, in fact, went to women who were divorced, widowed or unmarried.

With the advent of World War II, record numbers of women entered the work force to fill jobs left by men conscripted to fight the war. Despite postwar conventions that again celebrated domesticity and pushed women out of positions reclaimed by returning veterans, the war actually ignited a behavioral shift that forever reshaped the U.S. labor force.

In 1948, women comprised 29 percent of the labor force overall, and 17 percent of married mothers worked outside the home. Most of them were part of families living at the edge of poverty and needing two salaries, but some were in the professions and in business and simply rejected prevailing values. Those numbers have steadily increased over the last 60 years. Today, women make up nearly 47 percent of the labor force, with more than 79 percent of mothers now working.

But old ways die hard. Women may make up nearly half the American work force, but they still face an ever-increasing number of obstacles to balancing work and family and to achieving economic security. A report recently released by the Ms. Foundation for Women illustrates the myriad challenges facing women workers:

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists more than 440 occupations. Four out of five women are concentrated in only 20 of these jobs, most of them traditionally female roles such as secretaries, home health care and childcare workers, teachers, waitresses, etc. that barely afford women a living wage.
  • Approximately 63 percent of minimum- and sub-minimum-wage workers are women.
  • The recent recession has had a particularly negative impact on women. By 2011, women had regained only 11 percent of jobs lost (compared to men’s 24 percent), and by the end of 2012, the women had regained 46 percent (compared to men’s 50 percent).
  • Of families headed by single mothers, 28.7 percent — 4 million of them — live in poverty compared with 13 percent (or 670,000) of those headed by men.
  • Underemployment is a serious issue facing women workers. Approximately 26 percent of working women are in part-time jobs, which do not provide essential benefits and job security.

Though not sufficiently attentive to the needs of women at the time, Roosevelt’s New Deal and WPA exemplified the role government can and should play in guaranteeing a basic floor of well being for all Americans. We would be wise to revisit those ideals today as we think about how to protect and advance women workers across the United States.

President Obama has suggested many such initiatives: universal pre-school; better job training to equip students to pursue trades; a historic expansion of Medicaid and private health insurance that will guarantee all women basic preventative services (including reproductive health care and family planning); and pay equity and a raise in the minimum wage.

Indeed, the first piece of legislation President Obama signed upon entering office was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which overturned the 180-day statute of limitations for women to contest pay discrimination. Today, in commemoration of National Pay Equity Day, President Obama said:

Wage inequality undermines the promise of fairness and opportunity upon which our country was founded… Our country has come a long way toward ensuring everyone gets a fair shot at opportunity, no matter who you are or where you come from. But our journey will not be complete until our mothers, our wives, our sisters, and our daughters are treated equally in the workplace and always see an honest day's work rewarded with honest wages. 

There are other significant steps we can take:

  • Congress should pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, legislation that has been introduced a number of times since 2009 but has failed to secure support from both chambers of Congress. The legislation – an update to the 1963 Equal Pay Act – would prohibit employers from paying a man more than a woman for the same job and would prevent employers from punishing women who call attention to pay disparities.
  • We should ensure that women who work as nannies, home health care workers, housekeepers, etc. – positions that are a major backbone to our economy – receive a fair wage and benefits necessary to lead healthy, financially secure lives.
  • We should ensure that all workers are guaranteed sick days and parental leave so their families don’t play second fiddle to a job.
  • We should task our best and brightest with creating innovative job training programs (and job creation initiatives) that will enable women to move beyond the 20 or so occupations the majority currently occupy. And we should think critically about how the federal government can provide better job security for women in part-time and seasonal jobs.
  • We should create affordable childcare programs that would allow women to know their children are being well-cared for while they earn a living to support their families. This would also give women greater flexibility to occupy full-time, more stable positions.

FDR may not have offered women their rightful place in the New Deal’s employment programs. But today we know better. Only by lifting the barriers that prevent women from achieving real economic equity, can we regain real security for American families and re-establish our country’s stronghold as a global economic leader. 

Andrea Flynn is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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The Problem of Rents and the Wilt Chamberlain Example

Apr 4, 2013Mike Konczal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
  

 

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Why the GOP’s Efforts to Reach Out to Women Are Doomed to Fail

Mar 20, 2013Andrea Flynn

Why should women vote for a party that's actively working against their needs and interests?

Why should women vote for a party that's actively working against their needs and interests?

On Monday, the GOP released a report detailing its "Growth and Opportunity Project," a new initiative that explores reasons for the party’s November defeat and posits strategies for winning future elections. If it wasn’t evident before, it is now abundantly clear that the Republican establishment officially attributes its November loss to a failure in style, not substance. The 100-page report details the party’s inability to effectively communicate its policies and priorities to women, immigrants, young people, and people of color. It largely ignores the possibility that what motivated the majority of American voters, and in particular women, to give President Obama a second term was an aversion to the GOP’s outdated vision for the nation.

Acknowledging that Obama won the single women’s vote by a “whopping 36 percent,” the report’s authors suggest ways the party can be more inclusive of this critical voting bloc: Making a better effort to listen to female voters; fighting against the Democratic rhetoric against the “so-called War on Women"; doing a better job communicating the GOP’s policies and employing female spokespeople to do it; and using Women’s History Month to “remind voters of the Republican’s Party historical role in advancing the women’s rights movement.”

I’m glad they specified “historical” role in advancing the women’s rights movement, given that their current role seems squarely focused on rolling back women’s rights. It’s encouraging that GOP strategists in Washington want to spend more time listening to women voters, but there is no indication that Republican lawmakers will respond to that feedback. As Rachel Maddow said on her program this week, while Beltway leaders are “preaching about how to appear more reasonable to the women folk among us,” Republican governance has become a competition – a race – “to see who can get the most extreme the fastest.”

And a race it is.

This week Andrew Jenkins of RH Reality Check reported on some of the most recent Republican efforts to chip away at women’s access to care:

Arkansas just passed a bill banning abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy, while South Dakota just passed a bill to expand its 72-hour waiting period, which was already one of the longest in the country, in a state with only one abortion clinic. The North Dakota Senate just approved a ban on abortions after six-weeks of pregnancy, the most restrictive in the country. And in Kansas, a state House committee just passed a 70-page bill that defines life at fertilization and requires that physicians lie to their patients.

That’s not all.

Republicans in Texas remain hard at work leading national efforts in steamrolling access to women’s health care. Previous budget cuts and funding restrictions have already closed more than 50 clinics and are making it more difficult, if not impossible, for nearly 200,000 women to access care. Last week the Texas Senate Education Committee moved a bill forward that would ban Planned Parenthood and other organizations from providing sexuality education in schools, and the governor recently promised to advance a 20-week abortion ban.

In Wisconsin, four Planned Parenthood clinics closed as a result of a GOP-led ban that prevents the organization and other clinics from receiving state funds. In Oklahoma, a major Planned Parenthood facility closed after the state’s department of health cut off funding through the WIC program, forcing low-income women to go elsewhere to obtain vouchers for themselves and their children. Last month, Republicans in Michigan introduced a bill that would require women to get a vaginal ultrasound at least two hours before obtaining an abortion.

Mississippi is about to close its only abortion clinic thanks to a requirement that abortion doctors have admitting privileges at a local hospital (and local hospitals’ refusal to grant those privileges) – a move the Republican governor has applauded as being the first step in ending abortion in that state.  Earlier this year, a Republican (female!) representative in New Mexico proposed legislation that would have allowed for women who terminated pregnancies resulting from rape to be charged with a felony for tampering with evidence. (She promptly rescinded and then proposed a new bill that would instead charge abortion providers with facilitating the destruction of evidence.)

The new GOP report also suggested that Republicans “talk about people and families, not just numbers and statistics.” In releasing his 2014 budget proposal last week, Paul Ryan certainly provided an interesting perspective into how the GOP proposes taking care of women and families. According to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), the Ryan budget includes significant reductions for “child care and Head Start, K-12 education and Pell grants, job training, civil rights enforcement, women’s preventive health care, domestic violence prevention and more.” It would dismantle Medicaid, Medicare, and the food stamp program. It would repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), denying nearly 15 million women access to affordable health insurance and Medicaid and forcing women to pay more for prescription drugs, including family planning. As NWLC pointed out, repealing the ACA would “allow insurance companies to continue charging women higher premiums than men, deny coverage to women with so-called pre-existing conditions like domestic violence, and refuse to cover maternity care.”

The ACA is certainly providing fertile ground for GOP lawmakers to show how much they care about women. Twenty states now restrict abortion coverage in health insurance plans that will be offered through the insurance exchanges, and 18 states restrict abortion coverage in insurance plans for public employees. Nearly all of those states are Republican-led. Additionally, 14 Republican governors have reported they will not participate in the Medicaid expansion programs that are a critical part of the ACA, denying access to a broad range of health services to millions of women.

On top of all this, 22 Republican Senators and 138 Republican members of the House voted last month against the Violence Against Women Act, a critical piece of legislation that provides assistance to victims of domestic and sexual violence.

In their report, the GOP strategists recommended developing training programs in messaging, communications, and recruiting that address the best ways to communicate with women. “Our candidates, spokespeople and staff need to use language that addresses concerns that are on women’s minds in order to let them know we are fighting for them,” they state. Given the abovementioned pieces of legislation, the GOP will be hard-pressed to convince women the party is fighting for them. It’s patronizing to think that using different language, new messaging, and female spokespersons will convince women to support a party that is so clearly working against their best interests. Women are smart enough to know that a party that calls itself home to lawmakers relentlessly fighting to chip away at family planning and abortion access, food stamps, affordable health care, education, civil rights, and a social safety net providing tenuous stability to millions of marginalized individuals is not a party committed to truly understanding or addressing their priorities.

Maybe next year the GOP will attempt a more earnest effort at celebrating Women's History Month. Although, by that time, their state leaders might have alienated half the women in the country, and it will be too late. 

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.

 

Portrait of woman covering her ears via Shutterstock.com.

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A New Pope Brings New Hope for Ending Austerity

Mar 18, 2013Tim Price

If Pope Francis raises his voice on behalf of the poor, he could deal the final blow to austerity economics.

If Pope Francis raises his voice on behalf of the poor, he could deal the final blow to austerity economics.

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” That’s a quote from the New Testament, but it’s easy to imagine many in Europe expressing the same sentiment today, and I don’t just mean the crowd that gathered outside St. Peter’s Basilica last week to watch the newly elected Pope Francis make his first address. It applies just as much to austerity advocates throughout the European Union who continue to assure themselves that economic growth and recovery will come if they just keep cutting deeper. As Pope Francis leads the Church into a new era, he may also be able to help bring the age of austerity to a close.

The man formerly known as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio has a lot of hopes pinned on him, not the least of which is that he’ll serve as an advocate for the poor and an opponent of the economic policies that are afflicting them. The left has been let down on this front before; Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the “scandal of glaring inequalities" and condemned “unregulated financial capitalism,” but most progressives wouldn’t exactly consider him a staunch ally given his rejection of just about everything else they believe in. Already, critics have highlighted Pope Francis’s condemnation of gay rights and rumored collaboration with Argentine’s dictatorship, and as Mother Jones’s Eric Kain writes, “If the cardinals had elected a pro-choice pope, that would have been real news.”

But there are reasons to believe progressive optimism about Pope Francis isn’t totally misplaced. E.J. Dionne notes that he’s “the first pope to take the name of the saint known for his devotion to humility and to the poor.” He’s also the first pope from Latin America, which brings a new perspective to the Vatican and suggests that he’s “likely to weigh in often on behalf of the world’s poorest regions.” And to top it all off, he’s a Jesuit, which even among Catholics makes him the equivalent of that guy from college who made you feel bad by telling you he spent his summer volunteering with Habitat for Humanity while you were busy doing tequila shots. (There are also anecdotes about the modest life he chose to lead, but that feels uncomfortably close to saying Scott Brown would make a good senator because he drove a truck.)

Still, even if the new pope does emerge as a progressive voice on these issues, some might be tempted (no pun or theological implications intended) to dismiss his influence on economic policy. Regardless of whether you believe he’s really infallible, he’s still just one man (albeit one with a whole lot of employees), and the architects of austerity won’t be swayed by the power of prayer alone. But even they may be starting to question their beliefs – with their citizens protesting in the streets and voting them out of office, they don’t have much choice. The Associated Press reports that European leaders “aren't backing away aggressively from budget cuts and higher taxes, but they are increasingly trying to temper these policies, which have stifled growth and made it harder for many countries to bring their deficits under control.” A strong and sustained condemnation from the Holy See would make their position even more tenuous, even if the Church’s power in Europe is greatly diminished from what it once was. It might even give pause to austerity sympathizers on this side of the Atlantic, like former altar boy Paul Ryan. Okay, maybe we can’t expect miracles.

In Europe, the U.S., and throughout the world, people are losing faith in their leaders. Policies that attempt to prop up the status quo of a broken financial system while ignoring and even exacerbating real human suffering have made us feel cynical, isolated, and angry. Pope Francis has been called on to lead the Catholic Church, but he has an opportunity to provide some much needed guidance to people of all faiths or none. The message that will make that possible is not a sectarian one, but a universal one. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and caring for those in need, not supporting the rich and powerful, has to be the top priority of a healthy, sustainable society. In our holy texts and our constitutions, we’ve made that promise. Now it’s time to keep the faith.

Tim Price is Deputy Editor of Next New Deal. Follow him on Twitter @txprice.

 

Pope Francis image via Shutterstock.com.

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Banks Are Reluctant to Give Women Home Loans

Mar 14, 2013

It's no secret to anyone that lending has been tight after the bubble popped. But it turns out the impact of that problem hasn't been felt equally. A new fact sheet from the Woodstock Institute reports that women are having a harder time getting home loans than men and that the picture is even worse for women of color.

It's no secret to anyone that lending has been tight after the bubble popped. But it turns out the impact of that problem hasn't been felt equally. A new fact sheet from the Woodstock Institute reports that women are having a harder time getting home loans than men and that the picture is even worse for women of color. The institute looked at people living in the Chicago area and found that joint home purchase mortgage applications headed by women were 24 percent less likely to actually get a loan than male counterparts. For African American women, that number jumps to 34 percent. Worse, women are far less likely to be able to refinance their current mortgages. Female-headed joint refinance applications were 39 percent less likely to succeed, and that number is 44 percent for African-American women.

We might think that the days when women can't get a loan without their husband's signature is far behind us, but clearly the legacy lives on. Read more of the fact sheet here.

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Dorian Warren: We Need "National Voting Reform" if SCOTUS Decides Against Voting Rights Act

Feb 28, 2013

Antonin Scalia made his feelings on the Voting Rights Act, which took a beating during Supreme Court oral arguments this week, pretty clear, calling it a "perpetuation of

Antonin Scalia made his feelings on the Voting Rights Act, which took a beating during Supreme Court oral arguments this week, pretty clear, calling it a "perpetuation of racial entitlement." But as Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren explained on MSNBC's The Last Word, he's not alone -- nor is his line of thinking unique. Attacks on the Voting Rights Act are part of "a long-term, more than 30-year effort to chip away at most of the civil rights victories." Which is ironic, given that the arguments came on the same day the U.S. Capitol unveiled its new statue of Rosa Parks, "who led the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, the very state challenging the most significant and important civil rights victory of the movement," he said.





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The argument against the Voting Rights Act is basically that we've moved beyond racism, so targeting certain states for their histories of discrimination is out of line. But impulses to morph the law in ways that would discriminate against black people "have always been there, from the founding and especially through the '60s, until we had an effective legislation measure to deal with it," Dorian said. That's a lot of history to have already overcome.

So what do we do if the Supreme Court strikes down this law? There could be one upside. "In response we can then make a demand for some kind of national voting reform," he concluded. We'll have to wait and see.

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Dorian Warren: We Need "National Voting Reform" if SCOTUS Decides Against Voting Rights Act

Feb 28, 2013

Antonin Scalia made his feelings on the Voting Rights Act, which took a beating during Supreme Court oral arguments this week, pretty clear, calling it a "perpetuation of racial entitlement." But as Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren explained on MSNBC's The Last Word, he's not alone -- nor is his line of thinking unique.

Antonin Scalia made his feelings on the Voting Rights Act, which took a beating during Supreme Court oral arguments this week, pretty clear, calling it a "perpetuation of racial entitlement." But as Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren explained on MSNBC's The Last Word, he's not alone -- nor is his line of thinking unique. Attacks on the Voting Rights Act are part of "a long-term, more than 30-year effort to chip away at most of the civil rights victories." Which is ironic, given that the arguments came on the same day the U.S. Capitol unveiled its new statue of Rosa Parks, "who led the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, the very state challenging the most significant and important civil rights victory of the movement," he said.



Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The argument against the Voting Rights Act is basically that we've moved beyond racism, so targeting certain states for their histories of discrimination is out of line. But impulses to morph the law in ways that would discriminate against black people "have always been there, from the founding and especially through the '60s, until we had an effective legislation measure to deal with it," Dorian said. That's a lot of history to have already overcome.

So what do we do if the Supreme Court strikes down this law? There could be one upside. "In response we can then make a demand for some kind of national voting reform," he concluded. We'll have to wait and see.

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