Daily Digest - May 31: Everyone Hates ISPs

May 31, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

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Americans are not happy with their Internet service providers (Marketplace)

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Americans are not happy with their Internet service providers (Marketplace)

Ben Johnson talks to Roosevelt Institute Fellow Susan Crawford about the latest American Consumer Satisfaction Index, which shows ISPs are dead last in keeping customers happy. With little to no competition, they'd rather put profits into dividends for shareholders.

From the Mouths of Babes (NYT)

Paul Krugman feels that the Republican Party's war against SNAP is worth getting angry about, because SNAP encourages economic growth by giving families more to spend. And since the program feeds hungry people, more cuts mean more empty stomachs.

The Real Numbers: Half of America in Poverty -- and It's Creeping Upward (AlterNet)

Paul Buchheit argues that while the Census Bureau reports 15 percent of Americans are living in poverty, with alternate measures it's more like 50 percent -- a number that should raise some eyebrows, especially as Congress allows cuts to poverty programs.

Man of the (rich) people (Salon)

Joan Walsh agrees with rising Republican star Sen. Ted Cruz: Mitt Romney lost the presidency with the words "47 percent." But she sees a disconnect between Cruz's words and the pro-1 percent policies he and other Republican "reformers" are endorsing.

After Running The Numbers Carefully There's No Evidence That High Debt Levels Cause Slow Growth (Slate)

Matt Yglesias explains why it's problematic that Reinhart and Rogoff took their research straight to the op-ed pages: the data shows it’s likely they were aware that they were jumping from correlation to policy suggestions without the necessary stop at causation.

Washington 'Spends' More on Tax Breaks Than on Medicare, Defense, or Social Security (The Atlantic)

Derek Thompson shows that tax expenditures designed to promote mortgages, employer-sponsored health care, investment, and various other consumer behaviors cost American taxpayers more than many programs that are frequent targets for budget cuts.

Losing Hope in Detroit (Bill Moyers)

Greg Kaufmann examines the kinds of programs affected by sequestration, with Focus: HOPE in Detroit as his example. Their job-training program is going to lose between 250 and 350 spots this year, which will hurt 250 to 350 people still seeking good jobs.

Fast Food Workers Striking in Seattle (The Nation)

Josh Eidelson looks at the fast food strikes that shut down three fast food restaurants in Seattle yesterday. These one-day strikes are an organizing tactic for a world that is increasingly hostile to organized labor, and they're looking more and more effective.

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Daily Digest - May 30: Your Cable Package is Free Speech

May 30, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

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Comcast and Verizon’s Phony Free-Speech Claim (Bloomberg)

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Comcast and Verizon’s Phony Free-Speech Claim (Bloomberg)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Susan Crawford knows that it's the cable and internet providers who are trying to limit speech through their control of what's available over their wires. Business decisions aren't free speech- especially when they limit fair competition.

Why the Shareholder Rescue Never Comes (ProPublica)

Jesse Eisinger explains why shareholders aren't going to solve Too Big to Fail. Shareholders want to see big risks and big returns- and as long as they can count on federal bailouts, that means they don't mind seeing big banks, either.

People Over Politicians: Spending Less on Elections Could Strengthen Unions (The Century Foundation)

Douglas Williams argues that unions are wasting money when they donate to campaigns, because even politicians who claim to be pro-labor work against them. Instead, they could invest in local organizing and actually achieve some change.

No cause for relief—austerity will indeed drag hard on the economy in 2013 and 2014 (Working Economics)

Josh Bivens thinks that other writers are too quick to assume that rising stock and housing prices and falling gas prices mean that austerity hasn't slowed our economy. With the job market remaining "dismal," he thinks the recovery hasn't even arrived.

More and more Americans are feeling the effects of the sequester (WaPo)

Brad Plumer looks at the results of a May ABC News/Washington Post poll, which shows that 37 percent of Americans say they've been impacted negatively by the sequester. That number can only grow as spending on vital services continues to shrink.

Children of the Great Collapse (TAP)

Jared Bernstein lays out how the stimulus helped bring children out of poverty, and how the end of the Recovery Act along with sequestration will put them right back in it. Nothing helps the country's long-term economic growth quite like cutting 50,000 spots in Head Start.

Why Can’t America Be Sweden? (NYT)

Tom Edsall examines the claim that Sweden's "cuddly capitalism" would not work in the United States, where our role as supposed innovation entrepreneurs requires a more cutthroat system. This sounds like an awfully convenient excuse to abandon those in need.

The Very Low Threshold For What Conservatives Consider “Reform” (Washington Monthly)

Ed Kilgore doesn't think that policy priorities are enough to differentiate conservative reformers. When the plan for "reform" is to cut taxes and reduce the social safety net, it's hard to see how conservative reformers can claim to support the poor -- or new ideas.

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Is There Really a "Conservative Reform" Movement in Policy?

May 23, 2013Mike Konczal

A few years ago, Freddie DeBoer argued that the terms “left” and “liberal” in the political blogosphere were really more descriptive of argument style and political strategy rather than any actual ideological differences. I think there’s a similar issue at play in the wave of articles about conservatives seeking to reform the movement.

As 2013 rolls on, we are seeing more and more articles about conservative reformers. Ryan Cooper had a list of “reformish conservatives” at the Washington Monthly, and now Jonathan Chait has a great profile of Josh Barro at The Atlantic. I understand why these articles are written - they profile interesting conservative writers that people should read more. But I don’t think they actually make their point.

Here’s how Chait sets it up: “conservative reformists... [argue] that the GOP’s product itself, not merely its marketing slogans, needs to change. Writers like David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, and Ramesh Ponnuru have made versions of this case for several years.”

So there are two elements. First, reformers think that the GOP is currently on the wrong track with its policies, and second, they believe there need to be more “middle-class-friendly solutions” in new policy. This is different than saying that reformers don’t argue that the economy is a giant Randian morality play, or that President Obama is a left-wing radical; it’s about specific policies.

Are either of these things true? I don’t see it. Or, I see it more on the marketing end than on the policy end. I’m going to keep specific individuals vague here and generalize, because the arguments are predicated on a general move rather than any idiosyncratic argument. Here’s what I take to be the current conservative policy consensus:

1. Social Security and Medicare should be privatized. The word privatization is a complicated one with a lot of meanings, but generally competition should come to Medicare and private accounts to Social Security. This is for budgeting reasons, but also ideological ones. As Yuval Levin wrote, “the vision that has dominated our political imagination for a century — the vision of the social-democratic welfare state — is drained and growing bankrupt.”

2. Everything that isn’t nailed to the floor should be block-granted to the states. From there, funding should be slowed, and private agents should be emphasized at all points. Welfare reform, but for everything (especially Medicaid).

3. The tax code is too progressive, and that was true even before the changes in the fiscal cliff. The number of brackets should be reduced, perhaps even to two. Taxes in general should be lower, with some base-broadening to balance it.

4. The way to deal with health care is to allow insurance purchases across state lines while supporting state-level pre-existing condition pools. Ending Obamacare by itself is smart policy, even if something doesn’t “replace” it. And if push comes to shove, universal coverage is not a necessary goal.

5. Inequality is largely a non-issue, manipulated by liberals to justify their programs. The rich work harder in a global market that rewards skills and superstars. The middle class is only stagnating if you ignore health care costs and the fact that you can consume better technology cheaper. The economy works far better for average people than liberals understand.

6. Global warming, to whatever extent it is happening, should not have a government response to try and reduce carbon. Market signals, technology, migration, and adapting are better and cheaper options for even the gloomiest predictions. Or, looking at it in a different way, growth will ultimately solve the problem of global warming, and so any government policy that hurts growth (which they all do) is the wrong option.

I don’t think I’m making a strawman here. (1-3 is directly from Paul Ryan.) So the question is: how many of the reformers disagree with any of those? This is the core of current policy, and I don’t know if any of the reformish crew even disagree with these statements, much less want to spend the energy challenging them.

Now what about disagreements? What are they adding to the table? As far as I read what reformers bring to the table, it consists of:

a. Monetary policy shouldn’t adopt a price stability mandate (or a gold standard, for that matter), and in fact Ben Bernanke could and should be doing more to help the recovery with the powers he has available. (Fiscal policy like the stimulus, however, is a bad idea that largely fails.)

b. Tax credits, particularly the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit, are successful programs which might even be expanded. They’re good even though they mean 47 percent of Americans pay no federal income tax, which conservatives hate. ("Predistribution" means of boosting low-end wages, like a higher minimum wage, should be avoided though.)

c. Financial institutions should hold more capital, and perhaps we should apply a “structural” reform to the sector like a size cap or siloing of functions.

d. The government protects incumbent interests in industry, both with obvious subsidies but also with certain property rights, like copyright.

Am I missing more? These are important things, but it’s really tough to think of this as a general new direction in policy. Much of it is actually a defense and potential extension of already-existing policies against people further to the right. And even here you’ll have major disagreements. (It is amusing to think of Timothy P. Carney writing a column about how Ben Bernanke needs to “commit to being irresponsible.”)

A lot of the reformer articles posit more aggressive conservative reformers like David Frum, Bruce Bartlett, and now Josh Barro. What stands out to me is that these three write as if the Obama administration happened. The rest of the reformers write as if his first term never happened as a baseline, and crucially that they can’t write stuff seen as getting in the way of repeal.

They also understand that the Great Recession destroyed the previous consensus that we had solved the question of the business cycle. It’s tougher to argue that we should have a radically smaller federal government when it looks like the size of the government and automatic stabilizers helped keep the Great Recession from becoming a Great Depression-like collapse. The reformers have bounced around on this topic, but aside from the three mentioned, they haven’t had conversions. Mostly they believe the Great Moderation should have just tried harder.

I’d emphasize one last thing about the policy of conservative reformers: in practice it will likely be more gestural than substantive. I don’t know enough to mediate the health care battles, but I do know financial reform pretty well. And as financial reform is often brought out as an example of new reformers at work, it’s interesting to watch the lack of attention reformers pay to the actual nuts and bolts of the process.

I don’t see reformers call for getting the head of the CFPB appointed. I don’t see them arguing that repealing FDIC’s new resolution authority powers should be taken out of the Ryan Budget. I don’t see them arguing that efforts to repeal derivatives regulations already are premature or bad policy. I don’t see them angry about the mess of the securitization servicing system, which is creating a nightmare of law-breaking in the housing market. I also don’t seem them arguing the opposite either.

It’s focused on “break up the banks!” Crucially, this gets its energy from the idea that We Should Do Something Big about financial reform, rather than how it plays into a larger set of regulations, laws, and markets. It’s to position the Republicans as Doing Something where the Democrats haven’t. It’s sadly less policy and more political strategizing.

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A few years ago, Freddie DeBoer argued that the terms “left” and “liberal” in the political blogosphere were really more descriptive of argument style and political strategy rather than any actual ideological differences. I think there’s a similar issue at play in the wave of articles about conservatives seeking to reform the movement.

As 2013 rolls on, we are seeing more and more articles about conservative reformers. Ryan Cooper had a list of “reformish conservatives” at the Washington Monthly, and now Jonathan Chait has a great profile of Josh Barro at The Atlantic. I understand why these articles are written - they profile interesting conservative writers that people should read more. But I don’t think they actually make their point.

Here’s how Chait sets it up: “conservative reformists... [argue] that the GOP’s product itself, not merely its marketing slogans, needs to change. Writers like David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, and Ramesh Ponnuru have made versions of this case for several years.”

So there are two elements. First, reformers think that the GOP is currently on the wrong track with its policies, and second, they believe there need to be more “middle-class-friendly solutions” in new policy. This is different than saying that reformers don’t argue that the economy is a giant Randian morality play, or that President Obama is a left-wing radical; it’s about specific policies.

Are either of these things true? I don’t see it. Or, I see it more on the marketing end than on the policy end. I’m going to keep specific individuals vague here and generalize, because the arguments are predicated on a general move rather than any idiosyncratic argument. Here’s what I take to be the current conservative policy consensus:

1. Social Security and Medicare should be privatized. The word privatization is a complicated one with a lot of meanings, but generally competition should come to Medicare and private accounts to Social Security. This is for budgeting reasons, but also ideological ones. As Yuval Levin wrote, “the vision that has dominated our political imagination for a century — the vision of the social-democratic welfare state — is drained and growing bankrupt.”

2. Everything that isn’t nailed to the floor should be block-granted to the states. From there, funding should be slowed, and private agents should be emphasized at all points. Welfare reform, but for everything (especially Medicaid).

3. The tax code is too progressive, and that was true even before the changes in the fiscal cliff. The number of brackets should be reduced, perhaps even to two. Taxes in general should be lower, with some base-broadening to balance it.

4. The way to deal with health care is to allow insurance purchases across state lines while supporting state-level pre-existing condition pools. Ending Obamacare by itself is smart policy, even if something doesn’t “replace” it. And if push comes to shove, universal coverage is not a necessary goal.

5. Inequality is largely a non-issue, manipulated by liberals to justify their programs. The rich work harder in a global market that rewards skills and superstars. The middle class is only stagnating if you ignore health care costs and the fact that you can consume better technology cheaper. The economy works far better for average people than liberals understand.

6. Global warming, to whatever extent it is happening, should not have a government response to try and reduce carbon. Market signals, technology, migration, and adapting are better and cheaper options for even the gloomiest predictions. Or, looking at it in a different way, growth will ultimately solve the problem of global warming, and so any government policy that hurts growth (which they all do) is the wrong option.

I don’t think I’m making a strawman here. (1-3 is directly from Paul Ryan.) So the question is: how many of the reformers disagree with any of those? This is the core of current policy, and I don’t know if any of the reformish crew even disagree with these statements, much less want to spend the energy challenging them.

Now what about disagreements? What are they adding to the table? As far as I read what reformers bring to the table, it consists of:

a. Monetary policy shouldn’t adopt a price stability mandate (or a gold standard, for that matter), and in fact Ben Bernanke could and should be doing more to help the recovery with the powers he has available. (Fiscal policy like the stimulus, however, is a bad idea that largely fails.)

b. Tax credits, particularly the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit, are successful programs which might even be expanded. They’re good even though they mean 47 percent of Americans pay no federal income tax, which conservatives hate. ("Predistribution" means of boosting low-end wages, like a higher minimum wage, should be avoided though.)

c. Financial institutions should hold more capital, and perhaps we should apply a “structural” reform to the sector like a size cap or siloing of functions.

d. The government protects incumbent interests in industry, both with obvious subsidies but also with certain property rights, like copyright.

Am I missing more? These are important things, but it’s really tough to think of this as a general new direction in policy. Much of it is actually a defense and potential extension of already-existing policies against people further to the right. And even here you’ll have major disagreements. (It is amusing to think of Timothy P. Carney writing a column about how Ben Bernanke needs to “commit to being irresponsible.”)

A lot of the reformer articles posit more aggressive conservative reformers like David Frum, Bruce Bartlett, and now Josh Barro. What stands out to me is that these three write as if the Obama administration happened. The rest of the reformers write as if his first term never happened as a baseline, and crucially that they can’t write stuff seen as getting in the way of repeal.

They also understand that the Great Recession destroyed the previous consensus that we had solved the question of the business cycle. It’s tougher to argue that we should have a radically smaller federal government when it looks like the size of the government and automatic stabilizers helped keep the Great Recession from becoming a Great Depression-like collapse. The reformers have bounced around on this topic, but aside from the three mentioned, they haven’t had conversions. Mostly they believe the Great Moderation should have just tried harder.

I’d emphasize one last thing about the policy of conservative reformers: in practice it will likely be more gestural than substantive. I don’t know enough to mediate the health care battles, but I do know financial reform pretty well. And as financial reform is often brought out as an example of new reformers at work, it’s interesting to watch the lack of attention reformers pay to the actual nuts and bolts of the process.

I don’t see reformers call for getting the head of the CFPB appointed. I don’t see them arguing that repealing FDIC’s new resolution authority powers should be taken out of the Ryan Budget. I don’t see them arguing that efforts to repeal derivatives regulations already are premature or bad policy. I don’t see them angry about the mess of the securitization servicing system, which is creating a nightmare of law-breaking in the housing market. I also don’t seem them arguing the opposite either.

It’s focused on “break up the banks!” Crucially, this gets its energy from the idea that We Should Do Something Big about financial reform, rather than how it plays into a larger set of regulations, laws, and markets. It’s to position the Republicans as Doing Something where the Democrats haven’t. It’s sadly less policy and more political strategizing.

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If More Efficient Government is the Goal, Capping Revenues Isn't the Answer

Apr 18, 2013Joelle Gamble

Arbitrarily limiting revenues and cutting critical services doesn't boost efficiency; it just shifts the burden onto citizens.

Arbitrarily limiting revenues and cutting critical services doesn't boost efficiency; it just shifts the burden onto citizens.

The 2013 tax-filing deadline is just a few days behind us, but many Republican members of Congress have already started talking about this year’s revenue intake. Due to CBO projections that federal revenues in 2013 will be the highest in history, Republicans are arguing that the real issue with government is that it has a serious spending problem, and that it is too big and too inefficient to allow for domestic economic prosperity. Predictably, their solution to this problem is to cut taxes and spending. But this approach could actually create more of the inefficiency they claim to oppose.

If we want to build a more efficient government and increase economic prosperity, we should not slash critical government services or restrict revenues across the board. In fact, in a still weak and recovering economy, limiting revenues can heighten inefficiencies in government in a way that exacerbates resource inequalities. We can look to the effects of state property tax caps in Massachusetts and California as local-scale examples of what happens when we try to shrink government just for the sake of shrinking it.

In 1978, at the height of an anti-tax wave, California voters passed proposition 13, a cap on residential and commercial property taxes. Under the new law, increases in tax rates on assessed real property values essentially cannot exceed 2 percent per year. In addition, the law imposed two strict requirements for how new state and local revenues can be raised: State taxes can only be increased either by ballot or with a supermajority vote in both houses of the state legislature, and special-purpose taxes by local governments can only be increased by a supermajority of votes in a local election.

Similarly, Massachusetts’ proposition 2 ½, passed in 1980, limited property tax revenues to 2.5 percent of an area’s assessed property value while also capping growth in revenue from those assessments to 2.5 percent per annum.

Arguments in favor of these initiatives assert that caps on taxes are a needed move to increase government efficiency and to relieve strained families from the economic burden of higher taxes. Essentially the same ideas are permeating the national debate around the federal budget and deficit reduction as deficit hawks claim that government is too big and its spending is too much of a burden on the economy. Recently, as Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konzcal notes, evidence has been growing that this argument is built on shaky ground.

Caps on annual property assessments, which had been a statistically stable source of revenue, forced municipalities to scramble to adjust to the permanent loss of resources, resulting in haphazard cuts and unreliable financial decision-making. Coupled with the movement to give more direct power over taxation to the voters (see CA proposition 218, the Right to Vote on Taxes Act), this state of uncertainty has only calcified – and uncertainty does not breed the efficient government systems that anti-tax advocates have promised.

Furthermore, instead of providing “efficiency savings” to state and local government, reduced revenues have simply shifted the burden of providing services from a stable entity onto the backs of the affected communities. The price of basic government operations doesn’t suddenly get cheaper because there is less revenue. It forces officials to sacrifice important programs to cover basic operational costs, and often the people who relied on those programs are those who can least afford to take the sudden hit. For local low- and middle-income communities in California and Massachusetts, this meant school funding shortages that exist to this day. At the federal level, the mounting effects of sequestration on various services and workers are setting up similar long-term problems.

Everything is amplified in a weak or recovering economy. Direct cuts to services that low- and middle-income communities rely on only exacerbate economic inequality and further hamper future prosperity. Families who already are having difficulty paying bills will be forced to deal with new challenges, from cuts to student aid and Medicaid to being laid off or furloughed.

In setting our fiscal course for the next several years, Congress should take a hard look at the risks taken by the states and avoid caving into the idea that revenue is a necessary evil to be restricted as much as possible. We can agree that our common goal is a smarter, more efficient government; however, cutting revenue streams to force reform is not the smartest, most efficient policy to achieve that goal.

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

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Good News on the Deficit Makes Social Security Cuts Even Worse

Apr 12, 2013Jeff Madrick

The deficit is already shrinking rapidly, and Social Security won't add much to it anyway.

The deficit is already shrinking rapidly, and Social Security won't add much to it anyway.

The reason President Obama's proposal to cut Social Security benefits is tragic is that it is simply not necessary. His plan is to use a different method to compute how much benefits are raised to offset inflation. But Social Security will add very little to federal spending over the next 30 to 40 years. As a proportion of national income (GDP), It will rise from 5 percent to 6 percent. At the same time, retirees are set to get much less money from their pensions because so many were forced to depend on 401(k)s and defined contribution plans rather than traditional pensions with defined benefits.

But a new report from Goldman Sachs economists puts the Obama decision in an even harsher light. The federal deficit is coming down rapidly on its own. In a piece entitled, “The Rapidly Shrinking Federal Deficit,” Goldman notes that the deficit averaged 4.5 percent of GDP in the first calendar quarter, compared to 10.1 percent in fiscal year 2009. The reasons are faster economic growth, higher taxes, and reduced government spending. 

More importantly, Goldman thinks the deficit will fall to 3 percent or so over the next two years, mostly because business and households will begin spending again. They think so-called deleveraging—that is, paying back debt—is coming to an end.

And here’s some additional good news: deglobalization! McKinsey reports that deglobalization has plagued the world since the financial crisis. The cross-border flows of capital are down sharply. The good news, McKinsey admits, is that they probably should be. Such border flows were often hot capital, financing speculation more than long-term investment. Now foreign direct investment, usually stable investment in business, is a much higher proportion of capital flows.  

And financial deepening—the proportion of GDP that is in debt and stocks--is also down. What sticks out like a  sore thumb is that the financial deepening of the preceding two and a half decades—which was huge--went far less to households and business than is to be expected. Even McKinsey says this is astonishing, because what else is finance supposed to do but supply funds to individuals and businesses? Instead, an enormous proportion went to finance itself—that is, financial firms borrowed at dramatically higher rates. And an awful lot of that must have gone into speculative activities, especially highly risky mortgage securities. From my point of view, this financialization was the disease created by the triumphalism of globalization. Globalization, to be sure, had benefits, but they were overshadowed by the financial instability of capital flows, which grew enormously since Ronald Reagan was president.

McKinsey warns that this deglobalization of finance could go too far. As noted, cross-border flows, especially long-term investments, can be highly benefical for world growth. But for me, it is now welcome. 

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick is the Director of the Roosevelt Institute’s Rediscovering Government initiative and author of Age of Greed

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Mapping Out the Arguments Against Chained CPI

Apr 9, 2013Mike Konczal

Reports started coming in late last week that President Obama’s budget, to be released early tomorrow, will include a change to the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for Social Security. Specifically, it will adopt a “chained CPI” (consumer price index) measure.

Many people have been writing stories about why this is a bad idea. I want to generalize them into four major categories of critique of moving to a chained CPI (with one aside). As you read stories about the pros and cons of this change in the weeks ahead, hopefully this guide can provide some background.

Accuracy, or Lack Thereof

Economists like the idea of chained CPI because they think it’s more representative of how people behave when they substitute among goods. In this story, we have been over-correcting for inflation in the past decades.

However, as a letter from EPI, signed by 300 economists and social insurance experts, explains, it is just as likely as we are under-correcting. EPI notes "it is just as likely that the current COLA fails to keep up with rising costs confronting elderly and disabled beneficiaries." The current adjustment is based on an index of workers excluding retirees.

If you look into the data, the elderly spend a lot more of their limited money on housing, utilities, and medical care. Health care costs have been rising rapidly over the past several decades, and it is difficult to substitute on other necessary, fixed-price goods like utilities. With the notable exception of college costs, the things urban wage earners spend money on haven't increased in price as quickly as what the elderly purchase. As a result, the CPI-E (the index tailored to the elderly) has increased 3.3 percent a year from 1982 to 2007, while the CPI-W (tailored to wage earners) has only increased 3 percent a year. Definitionally, through the way it is calculated, chained CPI-W will always be lower than CPI-W. [Edit: This will almost certainly be lower, but it isn't definitionally true.]

As Dean Baker has noted, if accuracy were the only motive for changing COLA, it would be relatively easy to get a full, chained version of the index of prices faced by the elderly and use that. That has not been proposed.

Hedging Unexpected Longevity

Another argument is that this is a relatively small cut, or that a slower rate of growth shouldn’t really be thought of as a cut. But there’s a big problem with this.

There are many nice things about the design of Social Security, but one of them is that it is a form of insurance against the downsides of living longer than expected. Let’s say you retire at 65, believe you’ll live to 85, and save enough to make it to 88 just in case. And then you live to 92. Are those last five years absolutely miserable, with your savings completely depleted and an inability to earn market wages except through begging and charity? No, because my man Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Social Security got your back. Social Security helps hedge against two risks that are very difficult to manage: when you were born (and thus the years into which you’ll retire) and how long you’ll live.

Notice how chained CPI cuts, though. In the same way that compounding interest grows quickly over time because you get interest on what you’ve saved, a lower cost-of-living adjustment creates a lower baseline for future adjustments, so the cuts grow over time.

This means that the real cuts come from people who happen to live the longest. Which is precisely one of the risks Social Security is meant to combat. This is one reason why women, who live longer than men, are much more at risk from these chained CPI cuts.

Aside: Can’t We Balance the Downside?

You’ll notice liberals who support moving to chained CPI have complicated “swallow a bird to catch the spider who’s catching the fly” policy proposals to go along with it. If we swallow Obama’s chained CPI proposal, we’ll need to swallow an age “bump” to catch chained CPI from falling heavily on the very old. But after we swallow the age bump, we’ll need to swallow some sort of exemption for Supplemental Security Income to catch the fact that the change would still fall heavily on the initial benefit level for the poorest elderly and disabled people. And so on.

Doing all these fixes, of course, eliminates much of the savings that people are hoping to get. And it is unlikely that these clever ways of balancing the worst effects of the change will get even a single Republican vote. And of course, in spite of all this effort, Republicans could still call out the president for proposing to cut Social Security.

Neither Grand nor a Bargain

You’ll hear arguments that a Grand Bargain is necessary, so it’s better to bring Social Security into long-term balance now, with Democrats at the helm, than in the future, when there will be less time and an uncertain governance coalition. You can get fewer cuts and more revenue than you would otherwise and take the issue off the table for the foreseeable future to concentrate on other priorities.

But if that’s your idea, then this is a terrible deal and sets a terrible precedent, because this deal would accomplish none of your goals. You'd cut Social Security without putting in any new revenue. And it wouldn't be sufficient to close the long-term gap, so the issue would stay on the table. Indeed, the deficit hawks would probably be emboldened, viewing this as a "downpayment" on future cuts, and require any future attempts to get more revenue for Social Security, say by raising the payroll tax cap, to involve significant additional cuts.

We Need to Expand Social Security

As Michael Lind, Joshua Freedman, and Steven Hill of the New America Foundation, along with Robert Hiltonsmith of Demos, expertly document, Social Security should be expanded in the years ahead, not cut.

Retirement security is meant to be a three-legged stool of Social Security, private savings, and employer pensions. The last two legs of that stool have been collapsing in the past few decades, and there is no reason to believe that this will change in the near future. 401(k)s have been a boon for the rich to avoid taxes and save money that they’d be saving anyway, while it isn’t clear that average Americans have saved enough to offset declining pensions. Median wages have dropped in the recession and are likely to show little growth in the years ahead, which makes building private savings harder. There isn't a ton to cut - even the middle income quintile of retirees, making only around $20,000 a year, get 62 percent of their income from Social Security.

There are many ways to boost Social Security, and the New America paper introduces one. But as the authors note, “[a]ny strategy that expands the reliable and efficient public share of retirement security in America would be an improvement over today’s system, which is biased toward the affluent and skewed toward private savings.” And the best way to do programs is to build out programs that already work well.

Any other stories out there that require a new category?

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Reports started coming in late last week that President Obama’s budget, to be released early tomorrow, will include a change to the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for Social Security. Specifically, it will adopt a “chained CPI” (consumer price index) measure.

Many people have been writing stories about why this is a bad idea. I want to generalize them into four major categories of critique of moving to a chained CPI (with one aside). As you read stories about the pros and cons of this change in the weeks ahead, hopefully this guide can provide some background.

Accuracy, or Lack Thereof

Economists like the idea of chained CPI because they think it’s more representative of how people behave when they substitute among goods. In this story, we have been over-correcting for inflation in the past decades.

However, as a letter from EPI, signed by 300 economists and social insurance experts, explains, it is just as likely as we are under-correcting. EPI notes "it is just as likely that the current COLA fails to keep up with rising costs confronting elderly and disabled beneficiaries." The current adjustment is based on an index of workers excluding retirees.

If you look into the data, the elderly spend a lot more of their limited money on housing, utilities, and medical care. Health care costs have been rising rapidly over the past several decades, and it is difficult to substitute on other necessary, fixed-price goods like utilities. With the notable exception of college costs, the things urban wage earners spend money on haven't increased in price as quickly as what the elderly purchase. As a result, the CPI-E (the index tailored to the elderly) has increased 3.3 percent a year from 1982 to 2007, while the CPI-W (tailored to wage earners) has only increased 3 percent a year. Definitionally, through the way it is calculated, chained CPI-W will always be lower than CPI-W. [Edit: This will almost certainly be lower, but it isn't definitionally true.]

As Dean Baker has noted, if accuracy were the only motive for changing COLA, it would be relatively easy to get a full, chained version of the index of prices faced by the elderly and use that. That has not been proposed.

Hedging Unexpected Longevity

Another argument is that this is a relatively small cut, or that a slower rate of growth shouldn’t really be thought of as a cut. But there’s a big problem with this.

There are many nice things about the design of Social Security, but one of them is that it is a form of insurance against the downsides of living longer than expected. Let’s say you retire at 65, believe you’ll live to 85, and save enough to make it to 88 just in case. And then you live to 92. Are those last five years absolutely miserable, with your savings completely depleted and an inability to earn market wages except through begging and charity? No, because my man Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Social Security got your back. Social Security helps hedge against two risks that are very difficult to manage: when you were born (and thus the years into which you’ll retire) and how long you’ll live.

Notice how chained CPI cuts, though. In the same way that compounding interest grows quickly over time because you get interest on what you’ve saved, a lower cost-of-living adjustment creates a lower baseline for future adjustments, so the cuts grow over time.

This means that the real cuts come from people who happen to live the longest. Which is precisely one of the risks Social Security is meant to combat. This is one reason why women, who live longer than men, are much more at risk from these chained CPI cuts.

Aside: Can’t We Balance the Downside?

You’ll notice liberals who support moving to chained CPI have complicated “swallow a bird to catch the spider who’s catching the fly” policy proposals to go along with it. If we swallow Obama’s chained CPI proposal, we’ll need to swallow an age “bump” to catch chained CPI from falling heavily on the very old. But after we swallow the age bump, we’ll need to swallow some sort of exemption for Supplemental Security Income to catch the fact that the change would still fall heavily on the initial benefit level for the poorest elderly and disabled people. And so on.

Doing all these fixes, of course, eliminates much of the savings that people are hoping to get. And it is unlikely that these clever ways of balancing the worst effects of the change will get even a single Republican vote. And of course, in spite of all this effort, Republicans could still call out the president for proposing to cut Social Security.

Neither Grand nor a Bargain

You’ll hear arguments that a Grand Bargain is necessary, so it’s better to bring Social Security into long-term balance now, with Democrats at the helm, than in the future, when there will be less time and an uncertain governance coalition. You can get fewer cuts and more revenue than you would otherwise and take the issue off the table for the foreseeable future to concentrate on other priorities.

But if that’s your idea, then this is a terrible deal and sets a terrible precedent, because this deal would accomplish none of your goals. You'd cut Social Security without putting in any new revenue. And it wouldn't be sufficient to close the long-term gap, so the issue would stay on the table. Indeed, the deficit hawks would probably be emboldened, viewing this as a "downpayment" on future cuts, and require any future attempts to get more revenue for Social Security, say by raising the payroll tax cap, to involve significant additional cuts.

We Need to Expand Social Security

As Michael Lind, Joshua Freedman, and Steven Hill of the New America Foundation, along with Robert Hiltonsmith of Demos, expertly document, Social Security should be expanded in the years ahead, not cut.

Retirement security is meant to be a three-legged stool of Social Security, private savings, and employer pensions. The last two legs of that stool have been collapsing in the past few decades, and there is no reason to believe that this will change in the near future. 401(k)s have been a boon for the rich to avoid taxes and save money that they’d be saving anyway, while it isn’t clear that average Americans have saved enough to offset declining pensions. Median wages have dropped in the recession and are likely to show little growth in the years ahead, which makes building private savings harder. There isn't a ton to cut - even the middle income quintile of retirees, making only around $20,000 a year, get 62 percent of their income from Social Security.

There are many ways to boost Social Security, and the New America paper introduces one. But as the authors note, “[a]ny strategy that expands the reliable and efficient public share of retirement security in America would be an improvement over today’s system, which is biased toward the affluent and skewed toward private savings.” And the best way to do programs is to build out programs that already work well.

Any other stories out there that require a new category?

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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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Christie and Cuomo's Minimum Wage Politics Highlight Different Economic Visions

Feb 5, 2013Richard Kirsch

Cuomo's minimum wage proposal is better for working families, but the debate needs to be broader.

Cuomo's minimum wage proposal is better for working families, but the debate needs to be broader.

Two potential candidates for president in 2016, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, have taken opposing positions on raising the minimum wage in their states. The debate between the two governors draws a sharp distinction between competing economic visions: trickle-down vs. middle-out economics. At the same time, it also shows how limited the current debate is when it comes to dealing with what’s needed to meet the needs of working families and, in doing so, change the direction of economic policy.

In late January, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed a small increase in the minimum wage, from the current federal minimum of $7.25 an hour to $8.50 an hour. Christie said that raising the minimum wage would “jeopardize New Jersey’s economic progress.” Christie based his opposition on concerns about small business, although two out of three low-wage workers are employed by corporations with over 100 employees.

Across the Hudson, New York Governor Cuomo argued just the opposite in his State of the State address. Cuomo made the economic case for how putting more money into people’s pockets by raising the minimum wage will move New York’s economy forward:

Increasing the minimum wage leads to greater economic growth. Low-income individuals spend a larger percentage of their income than higher-income earners and salary increases in low wage occupations lead to increased demand for goods and services. Empirical evidence suggests that an increase of $1 in the minimum wage generates approximately $3,000 in household spending per year. Increased household spending will increase demand for goods and help businesses grow, thereby creating more jobs for New Yorkers.

That’s a positive change from a year ago, when Cuomo raised the same concerns as Christie after New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver first put forth the minimum wage proposal. But by the end of the 2012 legislative session, Cuomo had warmed to the proposal, which in both states is supported by more than 80 percent of voters. This year, he has made it a top legislative objective, the first plank in what he calls a “progressive agenda.”

While Cuomo’s support is very welcome, the governor’s own words provide strong evidence that the small hike in the minimum wage he has proposed, to $8.75 an hour, will still far short of what a family needs for the basics in life. In his State of the State address, he explained:

The current minimum wage is unlivable. It's only $14,616. The annual cost of gasoline is $1,200. The annual cost of electricity is $1,300. The annual cost of auto insurance is $1,400. The annual cost of groceries is $6,500. The annual cost of childcare is $10,000. The annual cost of housing is $15,000 on a minimum wage of $14,000. My friends, it does not add up. Nineteen other states have raised the minimum wage; we propose raising the minimum wage to $8.75 an hour. It's the right thing to do. It's the fair thing to do. It is long overdue. We should have done it last year. Let's do it this year.

Despite his passionate plea, the governor’s facts underscore the distance between his proposal and what it would take for a family to meet its essential needs. That figure is available from Wider Opportunities for Women through their Basic Economic Security Table (BEST), which measures by state and county the income a working adult requires to meet his or her basic needs without public assistance.

The BEST number for New York, using the entirely unlikely assumption that a worker has health benefits on the job, is $19.89 for a single worker and about the same for a two-worker family with two children. A single working parent with two children would need to make $36.23 an hour to have a basic living standard. The importance of Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act coverage provisions, which will start in 2014, is underscored by how much higher the hourly wage would need to be in the much more likely scenario that low-wage workers have no health benefits at work. For example, without benefits, a single person would need to earn $25.63 to meet basic needs and a single parent with two children would need $50.72.

A minimum wage that comes close to meeting to a family’s basic needs is both a question of morality and of economic policy. The underlying moral value is that all work has dignity and a full-time worker should earn at least enough to provide basic supports for themselves and their family: housing, food, transportation, child care, health care, personal and household items, and a bit to pus aside for emergencies and retirement (5 percent in the BEST budget). I’d add that a basic budget should include enough to save for higher education and a simple vacation, but those aren’t in the basic BEST calculation.

The economic policy is founded on the premise that by putting money in the pockets of people to meet at least the basics, you make working families the engine of the economy. People who can educate their children, support and care for their families, and shop in their communities move the economy forward. Nick Hannauer and Eric Liu call this “middle-out” economics, the conditions that allow both middle-class consumers and the businesses that depend on them to thrive in a virtuous cycle of increasing prosperity for all. It is at the core of why Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz believes that decreasing inequality is the key to economic progress. Cuomo makes the same argument, along with a much more modest proposal, which Republicans in the State Senate are resisting.

But as long as we are stuck in the politics of the immediately possible, our economy will remain stuck in low gear. To jump-start this conversation, Hanauer and Liu are proposing a federal minimum wage of $15. As Liu told me, “At a time of record corporate profits and record low wages (as shares of GDP), if poor and lower middle-class people are paid more they can buy more, and when they buy more, businesses sell more and can hire more. It infuses demand into the economy in a way that will circulate many times over. The best case for a big increase in the minimum wage is that it's great for business and prosperity.”

Meanwhile, in the realm of the immediate politics, reformers in New Jersey are planning to put a minimum wage referendum on the ballot next fall, when Christie is running for reelection as governor. Cuomo has included his minimum wage hike proposal in the New York State budget, improving the chances that it will become law. Both governors like to be seen as gutsy populists. But only Cuomo is standing for an economics based on the little guy and gal. 

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

 

Chris Christie image via Shutterstock.com.

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How Has the Liberal Project Fared Under President Obama?

Jan 22, 2013Mike Konczal

After President Obama's inaugural address yesterday -- “one of the most expansively progressive Inaugural Addresses in decades," as President Clinton's former speechwriter told Greg Sargent -- many are looking at the liberal project from the point of view of what was accomplished in the first term as well as what is possible in the second. Paul Krugman makes one version of this argument in The Big Deal, arguing, "as the second term begins [liberals should] find grounds for a lot of (qualified) satisfaction." Elias Isquith, Ned Resnikoff, and Jamelle Bouie discussed the health of the liberal project, especially the fate of social insurance, last month.

People will be engaging with these questions for the foreseeable future, starting in the next few weeks and continuing for a generation of scholars. I'm not sure if I have good answers, but I do have good questions. I've created a generalizable framework of what the component parts of the modern, domestic liberal project are so I can map how they've fared in the first term and what the challenges for each are going ahead. Liberalism is a project of freedom, of course. But by mapping it into component parts of managing the macroeconomy, a mixed economy, a strong regulatory state, and a system of social insurance, allows us to chart progress and retreat.

I'm going to address where I think these issues stand in the current debate among liberals, so it'll have a "on the one hand and also the other hand" dynamic. (The framework might seem ad hoc, but it could be built from theoretical grounds [1].) 

Managing the Macroeconomy

Goals: Taming the business cycle, Keynesian demand management, full employment.

The first term began with the worst downturn since the Great Depression, and normal monetary policy was immediately put in check. The mass unemployment of the past several years has thrown this Keynesian project into complete disarray. It hasn't helped that voters no longer think that the government is capable of doing much here, which is an unfortunate side effect of the weak response.

There's already been an extensive debate about what could have been done to generate more stimulus early on in the administration instead of pivoting away to deficit reduction. After the GOP took the House in 2010, there were two initiatives to try and meet the GOP halfway on stimulus. There was the approach of trying to propose stimulus the GOP would potentially support, like the American Jobs Bill. Remember that Congressional address in which the president said "pass this jobs bill" over and over? There was also the approach of seeking Grand Bargains for additional stimulus. This involved exchanging, say, Social Security cuts for infrastructure spending and some tax revenue. For better or worse, but mostly better, this failed because Republicans refuse to raise taxes.

But this all means that we are still stuck with high unemployment rates for the foreseeable future. It is unlikely that there will be stimulus in the second term; we should hope that some of the harsher cuts, like the sequestration, are postponed while the economy is weak.

Investing in the Mixed Economy

Goals: Creating the conditions for long-term growth, investing in public goods, protecting the public sector.

In addition to managing the short-term economy, there's also the issue of setting the stage for longer-term growth. This is necessarily a grab-bag category, overlapping with the other categories, but it is useful to distinguish it from short-term unemployment. Michael Grunwald's excellent book The New New Deal revived the extensive investment in energy and other innovations that were part of the stimulus. Preventing the mass firesale and collapse of the auto industry were crucial as well.

But there's been a decline in primary and secondary education investment driven by the states, as well as a large decrease in the number of government employees. That's largely the focus of states. At the federal level, investments in infrastructure, research and development, and education, all crucial to building longer-term prosperity, are at risk. Through the Budget Control Act and upcoming sequestration, President Obama and Congress have cut non-defense discretionary spending in order to balance the medium-term debt-to-GDP ratio. As EPI's Ethan Pollack notes, it is difficult to cut here without threatening long-term prosperity.

The stimulus brought a large wave of investment, but that could be more than cancelled out by both collapsing state budgets and long-term austerity and cuts.

Social Insurance

Goals: Sharing risks from poverty, large declines in income, and health problems.

The obvious win over the past four years is Obamacare. Universal health care was the missing piece in the safety net, and efforts to try and tackle this problem have failed every 20 years going back a century. It also survived the Supreme Court, making it the law of the land.

Democratic Senator Tom Harkin called Obamacare a “starter home," which could be generous. The biggest fear I have is that when the government turns it on in 2013, it is viewed as a costly disaster. It isn't clear that Medicare costs would then be lowered and the whole idea of government health-care could be tossed overboard. The damage could be greater than just Obamacare itself. Greg Anrig worries that states can still sabotage the exchanges. Sarah Kliff has an overview on Obamacare implementation over the next four years.

The defeat of Romney and Ryan means that the conservative plans to voucherize Medicare, privatize Social Security, and block-grant everything that's not bolted to the floor is off the table, perhaps for a while. What's possible in the next few years is means-testing the programs, raising their eligibility age, and otherwise reducing benefits. The administration's proposed willingness to raise the eligibility age for retirement programs in exchange for non-social insurance related goals, like stimulus, is bad news on this frontier.

Much rides on Obamacare's success, both bending the cost curve of healthcare to fix the long-term deficit and the credibility of government more broadly.

Regulatory State

Goals: Creating rules for the marketplace that check market failures and power.

The failure to tackle climate change will be remembered as the biggest problem of President Obama's first term. He was largely silent on the issue while a bill went through Senate, though has gotten louder on the topic recently, including in the Inaugural.

Dodd-Frank consolidated regulators, added powers necessary to rationalize the derivatives market, and created a beefed-up consumer regulator. It didn't break up the banks and the Volcker Rule is very much uncertain. It's fair to say it gives regulators a lot of powers they should have had going into 2008 and checks some of the larger deregulations and market failures of the 2000s. There's a remaining sense, however, that Wall Street is outside of the normal accountability mechanisms of the state.

It's probably too early to tell how much reform was jettisoned through Cass Sunstein, the "ambivalent regulator" in charge of OIRA. But my sense is that there were genuine liberals in regulatory agencies pushing strong reform at places like the EPA and the NLRB.

Carbon is still a major threat, though it looks like the President will make a major push in his second term on the issue. There's a growing bipartisan argument for breaking up the Too Big To Fail banks, which, even if it doesn't turn into law, could put additional pressure on how financial elites have become detached from the normal modes of accountability and law.

What's your take? This framework is obviously missing international and civil libertarian projects. There is the escalation of war in Afghanistan, as well as the larger deployment of drones to more theaters, both of which are major problems. The embrace of the legacy of torture is a betrayal of civil liberties. Congress will eventually need to step up and check the power of the executive branch, yet they seem just as bad as the administration.

[1] If you want a more theoretical treatment on one way to get to this mapping, John Rawls proposed four "branches" of government in a Theory of Justice that loosely map onto these categories. The allocation branch works like the regulatory state, the stabilization branch as managing the macroeconomy, and the transfer branch for social insurance.

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After President Obama's inaugural address yesterday -- “one of the most expansively progressive Inaugural Addresses in decades," as President Clinton's former speechwriter told Greg Sargent -- many are looking at the liberal project from the point of view of what was accomplished in the first term as well as what is possible in the second. Paul Krugman makes one version of this argument in The Big Deal, arguing, "as the second term begins [liberals should] find grounds for a lot of (qualified) satisfaction." Elias Isquith, Ned Resnikoff, and Jamelle Bouie discussed the health of the liberal project, especially the fate of social insurance, last month.

People will be engaging with these questions for the foreseeable future, starting in the next few weeks and continuing for a generation of scholars. I'm not sure if I have good answers, but I do have good questions. I've created a generalizable framework of what the component parts of the modern, domestic liberal project are so I can map how they've fared in the first term and what the challenges for each are going ahead. Liberalism is a project of freedom, of course. But by mapping it into component parts of managing the macroeconomy, a mixed economy, a strong regulatory state, and a system of social insurance, allows us to chart progress and retreat.

I'm going to address where I think these issues stand in the current debate among liberals, so it'll have a "on the one hand and also the other hand" dynamic. (The framework might seem ad hoc, but it could be built from theoretical grounds [1].) 

Managing the Macroeconomy

Goals: Taming the business cycle, Keynesian demand management, full employment.

The first term began with the worst downturn since the Great Depression, and normal monetary policy was immediately put in check. The mass unemployment of the past several years has thrown this Keynesian project into complete disarray. It hasn't helped that voters no longer think that the government is capable of doing much here, which is an unfortunate side effect of the weak response.

There's already been an extensive debate about what could have been done to generate more stimulus early on in the administration instead of pivoting away to deficit reduction. After the GOP took the House in 2010, there were two initiatives to try and meet the GOP halfway on stimulus. There was the approach of trying to propose stimulus the GOP would potentially support, like the American Jobs Bill. Remember that Congressional address in which the president said "pass this jobs bill" over and over? There was also the approach of seeking Grand Bargains for additional stimulus. This involved exchanging, say, Social Security cuts for infrastructure spending and some tax revenue. For better or worse, but mostly better, this failed because Republicans refuse to raise taxes.

But this all means that we are still stuck with high unemployment rates for the foreseeable future. It is unlikely that there will be stimulus in the second term; we should hope that some of the harsher cuts, like the sequestration, are postponed while the economy is weak.

Investing in the Mixed Economy

Goals: Creating the conditions for long-term growth, investing in public goods, protecting the public sector.

In addition to managing the short-term economy, there's also the issue of setting the stage for longer-term growth. This is necessarily a grab-bag category, overlapping with the other categories, but it is useful to distinguish it from short-term unemployment. Michael Grunwald's excellent book The New New Deal revived the extensive investment in energy and other innovations that were part of the stimulus. Preventing the mass firesale and collapse of the auto industry were crucial as well.

But there's been a decline in primary and secondary education investment driven by the states, as well as a large decrease in the number of government employees. That's largely the focus of states. At the federal level, investments in infrastructure, research and development, and education, all crucial to building longer-term prosperity, are at risk. Through the Budget Control Act and upcoming sequestration, President Obama and Congress have cut non-defense discretionary spending in order to balance the medium-term debt-to-GDP ratio. As EPI's Ethan Pollack notes, it is difficult to cut here without threatening long-term prosperity.

The stimulus brought a large wave of investment, but that could be more than cancelled out by both collapsing state budgets and long-term austerity and cuts.

Social Insurance

Goals: Sharing risks from poverty, large declines in income, and health problems.

The obvious win over the past four years is Obamacare. Universal health care was the missing piece in the safety net, and efforts to try and tackle this problem have failed every 20 years going back a century. It also survived the Supreme Court, making it the law of the land.

Democratic Senator Tom Harkin called Obamacare a “starter home," which could be generous. The biggest fear I have is that when the government turns it on in 2013, it is viewed as a costly disaster. It isn't clear that Medicare costs would then be lowered and the whole idea of government health-care could be tossed overboard. The damage could be greater than just Obamacare itself. Greg Anrig worries that states can still sabotage the exchanges. Sarah Kliff has an overview on Obamacare implementation over the next four years.

The defeat of Romney and Ryan means that the conservative plans to voucherize Medicare, privatize Social Security, and block-grant everything that's not bolted to the floor is off the table, perhaps for a while. What's possible in the next few years is means-testing the programs, raising their eligibility age, and otherwise reducing benefits. The administration's proposed willingness to raise the eligibility age for retirement programs in exchange for non-social insurance related goals, like stimulus, is bad news on this frontier.

Much rides on Obamacare's success, both bending the cost curve of healthcare to fix the long-term deficit and the credibility of government more broadly.

Regulatory State

Goals: Creating rules for the marketplace that check market failures and power.

The failure to tackle climate change will be remembered as the biggest problem of President Obama's first term. He was largely silent on the issue while a bill went through Senate, though has gotten louder on the topic recently, including in the Inaugural.

Dodd-Frank consolidated regulators, added powers necessary to rationalize the derivatives market, and created a beefed-up consumer regulator. It didn't break up the banks and the Volcker Rule is very much uncertain. It's fair to say it gives regulators a lot of powers they should have had going into 2008 and checks some of the larger deregulations and market failures of the 2000s. There's a remaining sense, however, that Wall Street is outside of the normal accountability mechanisms of the state.

It's probably too early to tell how much reform was jettisoned through Cass Sunstein, the "ambivalent regulator" in charge of OIRA. But my sense is that there were genuine liberals in regulatory agencies pushing strong reform at places like the EPA and the NLRB.

Carbon is still a major threat, though it looks like the President will make a major push in his second term on the issue. There's a growing bipartisan argument for breaking up the Too Big To Fail banks, which, even if it doesn't turn into law, could put additional pressure on how financial elites have become detached from the normal modes of accountability and law.

What's your take? This framework is obviously missing international and civil libertarian projects. There is the escalation of war in Afghanistan, as well as the larger deployment of drones to more theaters, both of which are major problems. The embrace of the legacy of torture is a betrayal of civil liberties. Congress will eventually need to step up and check the power of the executive branch, yet they seem just as bad as the administration.

[1] If you want a more theoretical treatment on one way to get to this mapping, John Rawls proposed four "branches" of government in a Theory of Justice that loosely map onto these categories. The allocation branch works like the regulatory state, the stabilization branch as managing the macroeconomy, and the transfer branch for social insurance.

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Two Inaugurals, Two Messages: From Mushiness to a Clear, Progressive Vision

Jan 22, 2013Richard Kirsch

President Obama's second inaugural moved past a vague message of compromise and charted a progressive course toward the future.

Four years ago, I stood in the cold listening to President Obama’s first inaugural address. I remember it leaving me cold. This year, in the warmth of my den, the president’s clear projection of progressive values as core American values warmed my heart.

President Obama's second inaugural moved past a vague message of compromise and charted a progressive course toward the future.

Four years ago, I stood in the cold listening to President Obama’s first inaugural address. I remember it leaving me cold. This year, in the warmth of my den, the president’s clear projection of progressive values as core American values warmed my heart.

I just looked back at Obama’s first inaugural address to see why I found it so disappointing. The speech starts by acknowledging the crisis of 2008, with the economy collapsing and war raging. As required, the president says that America is up to the challenge. The address includes a short list of progressive points on the economy, climate change, and the role of government. But these are interspersed with acknowledgments of the validity of conservative arguments. There is no unifying, values-based narrative or vision.

What a difference from yesterday's address, which starts with the promise of the Declaration of Independence – we are created equal in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness – and then unabashedly extends that to the struggle for civil rights, which Obama has often shied away from being seen as championing. He grounds our 200-year history “through blood drawn by lash, and blood drawn by sword," reminding us that "no union…could survive half-slave, and half-free.”

From there, the president charges directly to the historic role of government in building our physical and human capital. And unlike four years ago – when he first trumpeted the role of free markets and then noted the need for regulation – he says unambiguously, “Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play” and that “a great nation must care for the vulnerable and protect people from life’s worst hazards and misfortunes.”

Even when the president recognizes values shared by progressives and conservatives – skepticism that about central authority and the importance of initiative and personal responsibility – he quickly affirms that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.” To meet the future, the president says, will take the kind of things government does – educate children, invest in infrastructure – declaring, “Now more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.”

From there he makes it clear that our economic success is undermined when “a few do very well and growing many barely make it.” Instead, "America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work, when the wages of honest labor will liberate families from the brink of hardship.”

Obama then begins to build a bridge linking the dignity of the individual with the collective, which he expands as his address progresses. The first span of the bridge is to connect the prospects of a “little girl born into the bleakest poverty” with freedom and equality “not just in the eyes of God, but also in our own.” He continues to build the bridge, insisting that in updating government programs, we should aim to “reward the effort and determination of every single American.” He then makes it clear that this includes keeping the “commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security,” which “strengthen us” and “do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this nation great.”

The president then puts forth a values-based linkage of government's role in tackling climate change, refuting climate deniers and linking addressing climate change to our “economic vitality” and natural “national treasure.”

Reaching to a preacher’s eloquence, the president affirms that he is not leaving anyone behind in our national journey. The cadences of “our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts," “our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” “no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote,” “immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity,” and “children from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown” resound with the voice and spirit of Dr. King. The president has built a bridge that links individual initiative and responsibility to oneself and each other with a values-driven role of government that unites our diversity on the American journey.

Progressives need to pay close attention to another bridge Barack Obama has built here. He has integrated often separate strains: identity politics and the politics of government playing a key role in building an economy based on equal opportunity. The more we link those, the more we will create a story about America that commands a lasting majority.

No progressive story of America would be complete without putting movement at its core, which the president does forcefully in his alliterative embracing of “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.” Notably, these reminders come at the end of his discussion of our role in the world, as he links American movements to Dr. King’s proclamation that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth.

He doesn’t leave the call for action in the past. His concluding paragraphs clarify that “You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.”

The president will need lots of help setting that course over the next four years; surely he’ll be tested to keep to it himself. Our job is to do everything we can to assist him.

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

 

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