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Obamacare’s Nine Lives

If Obamacare survives the latest Supreme Court challenge, it will really be the cat with nine lives.

The death of what became the Affordable Care Act has been predicted regularly ever since President Obama’s election in 2008. Right afterwards, I got a wave of calls from reporters, each highly skeptical that the president-elect would really try to get health care passed. When you consider the relentless attacks and near-death experiences ever since, the reporters’ skepticism was understandable.

So when I found myself with a fresh surge of anxiety before the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in March on the latest assault on the law, I decided to list all the times that the survival of the Act was up in the air. And when I then counted them, it turned out that they numbered eight. So if Obamacare survives this last, desperate challenge in the Supreme Court, it really will have nine lives. Here they are, in chronological order:

1. The Great Recession: After Obama’s election a chorus of pundits predicted that the new president would have to give up his promise of health care reform because of the economic crisis. Instead, the president worked to get the economic stimulus passed, while paving the way for health reform. Just a few weeks after the stimulus became law, the president went on a national tour to push for action on health care.

2. Tea Party August: The Tea Party movement came to national attention with loud, vitriolic attacks on health care at congressional town meetings held by Democrats in August 2009. Republicans gleefully predicted they had killed the bill. But by the second half of August, supporters of health reform had rallied at dozens of town hall meetings, usually turning out more activists than the Tea Partiers. The press didn’t give the same attention to meetings that were not marked by raucous demonstrations. But Democratic lawmakers were sent back to Congress knowing they had support in their home districts to move ahead.

3. Scott Brown’s Election: The surprise election of Republican Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate in January 2010, on a platform opposing health care, looked like it might kill the bill. But having voted to pass the legislation in both houses, Democrats were not going to turn back. President Obama rallied the public by finally attacking the practices of health insurance companies and even without a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act became law.

4. The Supreme Court Challenge: Immediately after the ACA’s passage, opponents launched a legal attack, which – shocking most legal scholars – was taken seriously by the courts. And by the time the Supreme Court heard the challenge, the odds were that the Court would gut the key provision of the law that enabled insurance to be affordable to individuals. But Chief Justice Roberts saved the day  – and much of the Court’s credibility.

5. The 2012 Election: If the Senate had gone Republican in 2012 – as was widely predicted – and Mitt Romney been elected, Obamacare would have been repealed. Instead, the ACA emerged with a new electoral mandate.

6. Government Shutdown and Congressional Repeals: I hesitated to put the 50 or so Republican votes to repeal the law, culminating in the government shutdown in the fall of 2013, on the list, only because of President Obama’s veto pen. But even if the ACA always had the presidential veto as armor, the barrage of repeal missiles has got to be counted. Texas senator Ted Cruz led the government shutdown before health insurance enrollment opened up because, as he said, “no major entitlement has ever been implemented and then unwound.”

7. Healthcare.gov: And then, with the disastrous launch of the website to enroll people in health care, Ted Cruz appeared to have gotten his wish fulfilled. The ACA might not be legally dead, but much of it was functionally comatose. Then the administration resuscitated the website, and millions were enrolled and started benefiting from the coverage. It looked like, as Cruz feared, the ACA was here to stay.

8. Supreme Court Redux: That is until the Supreme Court agreed to hear a desperate, last-minute challenge to the ACA’s subsidies for millions of newly enrolled people in the King v. Burwell case. Could this be like one of those movies where the soldier survives the war, only to be killed by a bullet on his way home, fired by an enemy that hadn’t heard the war was over?

The news reports of the oral arguments were encouraging, particularly Justice Anthony Kennedy’s raising of a constitutional issue with the plaintiff’s case. And there are a host of other legal reasons to believe that the lawsuit is groundless. But then it did get this far. The opponents have been relentless. They haven’t gotten the message that the war is lost.

In June, we’ll find out if the ACA is indeed the cat with nine lives. Easy to laugh at, if not for the fact that the actual lives of millions of people who rely on the law for life-saving health care are at stake.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Advisor 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.

This was originally published in Next New Deal, the blog of the Roosevelt Institute.

Photo: Mark Hillary via Flickr

Risky War Business

From the Islamic State to the streets of Paris, Americans get bombarded daily with fresh reminders of conflicts around the world.

What’s harder to figure out is what to do about it. What would actually make us safer?

Some politicians urge kneejerk reactions. Spend more on the Pentagon, they say. But one thing’s clear after years of over-relying on military force: It can actually make us less secure.

You don’t have to take my word for it.

When journalist Bob Schieffer asked recently if he had regrets about invading Iraq, former president George W. Bush lamented that “a violent group of people have risen — risen up again.”

Bush can find one of the culprits for this sad development by looking in the mirror. Without that invasion and the sectarian chaos it unleashed, there would be no Islamic State (ISIS). What will it take for the U.S. government to grasp that short-term military solutions create long-term crises?

Sadly, our leaders remain hooked on military “solutions,” which too often make the world more dangerous.

In fact, President Barack Obama’s 2016 funding request for the Pentagon’s base budget is the biggest in U.S. history. Total military expenditures, including nuclear weapons and war spending, gobble up well over half of the nation’s discretionary budget — even as we continue to draw down troops from Afghanistan.

Much of that budget growth funds weapons systems unsuited to today’s battlefields. Washington’s spending billions to pad the pockets of Pentagon industry insiders who reap record profits while doing little to enhance national security.

The American people must demand a new definition of security — both at home and abroad — that means more than new and bigger guns.

In the Middle East, that means diplomatically engaging countries directly threatened by the Islamic State. It also means taking common-sense steps — like providing economic and humanitarian assistance — to address the “ISIS crisis” in a way that creates friends, not enemies.

“What matters more to American security?” Senator Chris Murphy asked when funding for food assistance for Syrian refugees was running out. “One day of missiles being fired at ISIS inside Syria? Or being able to feed hundreds of thousands of hungry refugees, who, if they don’t get a square meal…are going to turn to ISIS?”

Sadly, our leaders are better at finding money for weapons than for food. With budget priorities like that, we’ve got problems back home, too.

Public investment in America’s future — on roads, schools, and scientific research — is at historic lows. And the government has slashed spending on a wide range of vital programs that provide security and opportunity for American families since 2010.

Last year, domestic discretionary spending fell by some $15 billion, while the Pentagon used its massive slush fund — the Overseas Contingency Operations account — to escape any significant cuts at all.

As Congress ponders the federal budget, it must focus on what will really make our families more secure. Reining in wasteful Pentagon spending is one great way to get started.

But cutting the security of Americans at home — including our education, health care, retirement, and child care — hits us where we live.

Richard Kirsch is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and the author of Fighting for Our Health: The Epic Battle to Make Health Care a Right in the United States. He’s also a senior advisor to USAction. USAction.org

Distributed by OtherWords.org.

Photo: A soldier assigned to the International Security Assistance Force patrols the streets of Mazar-e Sharif. (Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Chandler, via Wikimedia Commons)

Obama’s ‘Middle-Class Economics’ Has To Be About Fairness And Prosperity

The fairer “middle-class economics” policies described in the State of the Union are also the right ones to help the economy grow.

In coining the new term “middle-class economics” and linking it to raising wages and taxing the rich and Wall Street to put money in the pockets of working families, President Obama used his State of the Union address to ask the public that most potent of political questions: “Which side are you on?” And as Republicans say no to improving wages and making college more affordable in order to defend the super rich, Americans will get a clear answer. That’s a sure win for Democrats.

But the president’s explanation of middle-class economics downplayed an important part of the story: it’s not just about fairness, it’s about how we create prosperity.

With the term “middle-class economics,” the president is creating a contrast between economic programs aimed at boosting the middle class and the Republican agenda of shrinking government and lowering taxes for corporations. But Obama’s use of the term missed an opportunity to drive home to the American public that middle-class economics is not just about fairness, but also about moving the economy forward.

Obama defined middle-class economics as “the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” That is one of the president’s favorite phrases. But for all its appeal, it does not explain how middle-class economics drives economic progress and increases wealth. He fails to replace the Republican story that cutting government, taxes, and regulation are the keys to economic growth.

The president actually included such an explanation of what drives the economy in his 2013 State of the Union address, when he said: “It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class.”

Democrats need to firmly claim both the grounds of fairness and prosperity. As I recently wrote, “The policies that do the most to bolster fairness are in fact the most powerful policies to move the economy forward and create broadly shared prosperity.”

This is an easy case to make, as it’s true for most of the policies in the president’s middle-class economic agenda.

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

The president’s tax proposals are also about more than just the unfairness of a tax code riddled, as he said, “with giveaways the super rich don’t need, denying a break to middle-class families who do.” His proposed taxes on risky bank speculation move that money to invest in vital infrastructure. When he proposes raising taxes on the rich, who already have more money than they can spend, and using those funds to make community colleges more affordable, he’s putting that money into the economy and investing in people’s skills to contribute to economic progress.

Fairness is a very powerful American value. That’s why the most successful Democratic candidates in 2014 made it clear that they were on the side of working families against Wall Street.

But the reason that fairness is so powerful is because of the contrast between the few with vast wealth and what Americans most want, to be able to care for and support their families. We value prosperity and security. That is why it is essential that Democrats can tell a clear story about how we move the economy forward. Middle-class economics is about more than fairness – it’s about how working families and the middle class drive the economy.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Advisor 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.

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog.

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Photo: President Barack Obama delivers the State of The Union address on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Van Hollen Tax Proposal An Economic And Political Home Run

By forcing Republicans to admit their support for Wall Street over working families, Van Hollen’s proposal opens the economic debate the Democrats need.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s (D-MD) proposal to tax Wall Street speculators and CEO millionaires to put money in the pockets of working families and the middle class, the engines of our economy, is a political and economic home run. It allows Democrats to focus on economic growth and fairness at the same time, sharply defining the debate on the key question voters ask: “Which side are you on?”

Leading politicians from both parties are all expressing sympathy for the stagnant prospects of the middle class. If you need evidence, here is Jeb Bush sounding like Elizabeth Warren: “Millions of our fellow citizens across the broad middle class feel as if the American Dream is now out of their reach … that the playing field is no longer fair or level.”

Where the two parties split – and where the core debate that will define the next two years and the 2016 election lies – is on who is to blame and what to do about it.

Americans believe we need economic growth, but they are more likely to place the blame for stagnant wages on the super-rich and powerful who game the system at their expense. That is why they told pollsters they prefer “an economy that works for all of us, not just the wealthy” over “growing the economy” by 22 points.

Van Hollen claims both grounds – growth and fairness. As he says, “What our country needs is a growing economy that works for all Americans, not just the wealthy few.”

The heart of the plan is providing a $1,000 tax credit for workers, phased out as income rises, along with an additional $250 tax credit when workers save. He would pay for that by taxing Wall Street speculation (with a tiny financial transactions tax) and closing loopholes that allow millionaires to pay lower taxes than average people.

It’s clear that this is great politics: taxing Wall Street gambling and the super-rich to put more money in the pockets of working families and the middle class.

Republicans tell another story, placing the blame for middle-class woes on government and focusing on lowering taxes and cutting government regulation to grow the economy. In opposing the Van Hollen proposal, they are forced to defend the wealthy and deny tax breaks to the middle class, as we saw from Speaker John Boehner’s spokesperson’s comment opposing the Van Hollen plan.

This is the economic argument Democrats want to have. Republicans say we grow the economy by taking the side of the Wall Street banks that wrecked the economy and the corporate CEOs who cut our wages and shipped our jobs overseas. Democrats say we move the economy forward by putting more money in the pockets of working families and the middle class.

Van Hollen adds another proposal, which is also brilliant politics and sharp economics. He would not allow corporations to get tax breaks for million-dollar executive pay unless they shared the rewards of soaring corporate profits with their workers. Van Hollen accomplishes this by proposing to end corporate tax deductions for executive compensation of over $1 million, unless the corporation’s wages are raised enough to keep up with worker productivity and the cost of living. Another way that corporations could deduct higher executive pay is by providing employees with ownership and profit-sharing opportunities.

With this proposal, Van Hollen puts the focus squarely on the corporate behavior that has driven down wages and crushed middle-class aspirations. His proposal would boost worker income, which drives the economy forward. When Republicans oppose this, the choice will again be clear to Americans: CEO millionaires or working families.

As Van Hollen recognizes, his proposal is not the complete solution to creating an economy of broadly shared, sustainable prosperity. He recognizes the need to raise wages and job standards, which directly turn today’s low-wage, economy-busting jobs into economy-boosting jobs. He reinforces the necessity of investment in infrastructure, research and education.

It will be important to do all these things. We need to raise wage standards and strengthen the ability of workers to organize, to make sure that every job pays enough to care for and support a family in dignity. It is essential that we make huge investments in transportation, clean energy, communications, and research to build a powerful economic foundation for the future. That investment will take revenues, which can be raised from closing corporate loopholes, raising tax rates on the wealthy, or other progressive tax measures. We can also discuss whether some of the revenues Van Hollen raises would be better spent on infrastructure rather than tax breaks for upper-middle-income people.

Simplicity is key to political communication. In its simplest terms, Van Hollen is saying that we drive the economy forward by putting money in the pockets of working families and the middle class, not Wall Street and the super-wealthy. And then his proposal invites Americans to ask their elected officials: “Which side are you on?”

If Democrats around the country are willing to stand up to their big campaign contributors and ask that question with such a powerful proposal in 2016, they will triumph. And in triumphing, they will move the country toward an America that works for all of us, not just the wealthy.

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.

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog.

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Photo: Talk Radio News Service via Flickr

Chuck Schumer And The Democrats’ Identity Crisis: Economic Policy Vs. Rhetoric

A populist message won’t be enough to save the Democratic Party if its leaders continue to serve Wall Street.

Two weeks before New York senator Charles Schumer once again delivered for Wall Street with the omnibus budget deal, he gave a major speech in which he sounded like a progressive champion. Schumer offered a stirring defense of government as the only force that can stand up to the private sector’s attack on the middle class, and argued that for Democrats to “roll to victory in 2016… First, we must convince Americans that government can be on their side and is not just a tool of special interests.”

Schumer is not just any Democrat. He led the successful election efforts for Democratic senators in 2006 and 2008, is number three in the Democratic Senate leadership, where he is responsible for policy and communications, and he sits on several of the most powerful Senate committees. His speech at the National Press Club on November 25 was billed as a major analysis of why Democrats did so badly in the midterms and how they should chart a path to victory in 2016.

Unfortunately, Schumer embodies the contradictions that will tear the Democratic Party apart over the next two years. He understands the need to embrace a populist, progressive narrative and program, but his ties to Wall Street and big money lead him to blunt any real moves by Democrats to take a bold stand for working people against corporate power.

The budget proposal to allow more government bailouts of banks that gamble with their depositors’ money was a huge lost opportunity for Democrats to paint Republicans as being on the side of the big banks that wrecked the economy. That opportunity was negated by President Obama’s pushing for the budget and Senator Schumer’s stealth maneuvers (widely known in Congress) to keep the Wall Street deal intact. As a result, the leaders of both parties demonstrated, as they’ve done before, that government is in fact on the side of the rich and powerful.

Schumer knows that this is a problem if Democrats hope to win at the polls. While his speech at the National Press Club got a lot of attention for his negative comments about the president’s strategy on the Affordable Care Act, those remarks were only a small part of a long analysis that has a lot in common with progressive views of the economy and the role of government. Some highlights:

The most salient factor in our political economy is that for the first time in American history, middle-class incomes have been in decline for over a decade… The powerful have much more access and influence over government and specific and strong actions must be taken to curb that influence so government can really represent the average person… We must illustrate that government can provide solutions by delineating specific concrete programs that if enacted would actually improve lives and incomes… We must convince the middle class that the only way out of their morass is by a stronger and effective government, not by demeaning or running from it…

When large forces harness power and push you around, you need a large after force to stand up to — to stand up for you. The only force that can give you the tools to stand up to the large tectonic forces that can mitigate the effects that technology creates on your income is an active and committed government that is on your side.

Schumer highlights the same key economic fact that progressives emphasize: wages have not kept up with productivity. But it is in his explanation of what is behind stagnant wages that he departs from progressives. For Schumer, “it can be described in one word — technology. Technology allows capital to garner [a] far greater share of increases.” He goes on to note globalization as another factor.

Schumer leaves out the powerful political forces that drove down wages. The biggest omission is his total failure to discuss the role of Wall Street in wrecking the economy and, more broadly, in driving down wages at the expense of corporate profits. Schumer, who as much as anyone in government is responsible for unleashing Wall Street, is incapable of making that case. A leading champion of banking deregulation, he has collected more than $20 million in campaign contributions from the financial sector, more than any other senator who hasn’t run for president.

And it’s not just Wall Street that Schumer leaves out of the story. It is also the corporate attack on labor unions and on labor standards.  He makes no mention of the slashing of taxes on unearned income, so that the rich pay lower taxes than the rest of us, or of the gutting of corporate tax collection. Where are the corporate villains – abetted by both political parties – who have enriched themselves at the expense of American families while driving down taxes and government investment in the public structures that are foundations of a powerful economy?

Schumer emphasizes that Democrats need a policy program to go along with their message of being on the side of the middle class, but he punts on what ideas they should propose, saying, “In the coming weeks and months we will have this debate within the Democratic Party.” Still, he declares that the Democratic program must be “attainable and effective, which means they must work politically.” That’s a recipe for more small-bore ideas, which will neither meet the big challenges facing the country nor inspire people.

In his conclusion, Schumer again asserts that what can unite Democrats “from Elizabeth Warren to Hillary Clinton to Joe Manchin” is working to “convince middle-class Americans that we are the party that will put government back on their side… and passing legislation that is effective and acutely focused on reversing the middle class decline.”

Richard Nixon’s attorney general John Mitchell famously said, “Watch what we do, not what we say.” But in today’s world of minute-to-minute coverage and social media, that isn’t so easy to pull off. CREDO Action, one of the big progressive netroots groups, immediately called out Schumer, along with President Obama and other Democrats who enabled the Wall Street budget deal.

Schumer is a brilliant politician and legislative tactician, but the reality of the corporate attack on American workers will overwhelm any messaging gloss that Democrats can put on it. He’s right; Democrats will have to take sides between working families and the middle class or the super-rich and CEO campaign contributors.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Advisor 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.

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog.

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Photo: Third Way via Flickr

News Flash: Progressives Have A Winning Economic Narrative — And Democrats Who Used It Won

Democrats can connect with voters by telling a story about how they’ll make the economy work for all of us.

The big post-election consensus is that Democrats believe, as The New York Times put it, they were missing “a broad economic message to enthuse supporters and convert some independents.”

So what would that missing narrative be? The point of a narrative is to give people an explanation of what they are experiencing that includes what is wrong, who is responsible, and what we can do about it.

Take a look at two explanations of what’s happening that are very similar but different in important ways.

The first, from Republican message guru Frank Luntz, writing in The New York Times: “[F]rom the reddest rural towns to the bluest big cities, the sentiment is the same. People say Washington is broken and on the decline, that government no longer works for them — only for the rich and powerful.”

The second, from Democratic message advisors James Carville and Stan Greenberg, along with Page Gardner: “People believe that the rich are using their influence to rig the system so the economy works for them but not the middle class.”

The big difference here is how the common sentiment among Americans – that the rich call the shots – is framed to suggest a solution. By focusing on the government, Luntz sets up the Republican push for limited government. Or as successful Iowa Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst said in a debate, “When Washington is picking… winners and losers, it’s almost always our Iowa middle-class families that lose.”

For Carville, Greenberg, and Gardner, the focus is on the economy being rigged. Or as one ad for Oregon’s Democratic senator Jeff Merkley said, “It is Jeff leading the fight to hold Wall Street and big banks accountable when they prey on working families and small businesses. ”

Merkley won and so did Ernst. The explanation, according to progressive pundits, is that Democrats like Merkley who used a populist message – which means they connected people’s economic concerns to the rich and powerful who are responsible – were successful while Dems who ran away from that message lost. As someone who has been leading the Progressive Economic Narrative (PEN) project, I really wanted to believe that. But as it seemed too easy, I decided to look at some campaigns and see whether it was spin or the truth. It turns out to be the truth.

The first case I looked at was Minnesota Democrat Al Franken’s campaign. After eking out a victory in the great Democratic year of 2008, Franken won handily this year, even as Republicans took over the Minnesota House of Representatives. Imagine my smile when I quickly found Franken ads based on the key value statement in our Progressive Economic Narrative, “We all do better when we all do better.” This was also a key theme of Minnesota’s great progressive senator, Paul Wellstone.

Franken’s progressive populism makes a key distinction when he uses the key word in that values phrase, “all.” As he says in another ad,  “I work for all Minnesotans. Wall Street wasn’t happy about that. But I don’t work for Wall Street. I work for you.”

The name of our Progressive Economic Narrative is “An America that works for all of us,” which is central to the aspirational power of our story. However, what is needed for that message to win is to make it clear who is not included in “all of us” (i.e., the wealthy). A poll of voters last spring found that voters preferred “growing the economy” over “an economy that works for all of us” by 10 percentage points. By contrast, voters chose “an economy that works for all of us, not just the wealthy” over “growing the economy” by 22 points!

Merkley was also sure to name the villains of the economic story throughout his campaign, as in the Wall Street ad mentioned above.

So what about those Democrats who lost in purple states? I would have thought Iowa Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, who founded the populist caucus when he got to Congress in 2007, would have run a populist campaign. Instead, Braley ran on working across the aisle to get things done in Iowa and not “letting the extremists from either party get in the way.” Because voters are skeptical about anything getting done for them in Washington, his message fell flat.

Braley listed progressive issues, but without a narrative to link them together. His only villains were the “Koch brothers and their extreme agenda,” but he didn’t say what made their agenda extreme. Contrast that with how Merkley described “the billionaire Koch brothers,” who want to give “more tax breaks to millionaires and reward companies that ship jobs overseas.”

What about Mark Udall in Colorado, another Democrat who lost in a purple state that Obama carried? Udall built his campaign narrative around a war on women by his opponent Rep. Cory Gardner. He, like Braley, ticked off a list of progressive issues – from minimum wage to pay equity to protecting Social Security – without providing any framing story to link them together. He left out who the villains are in the story.

Udall also committed the ultimate narrative sin: delivering your opponent’s story. Here’s the closing line of a Udall ad: “I’m Mark Udall. No one – not government, not Washington – should have the power to take those rights and freedoms away.” Voters who wanted the anti-government candidate chose the real thing!

Udall would have had a much broader audience for his “war on women” message if he framed it as part of a broader war on American families by the rich and powerful. It is easy to make opposition to pay equity or a woman’s right to make her own decisions part of this broader story, which speaks to Americans’ deep concerns about their families.

One part of the story I didn’t see in the candidate ads was how Democrats should address Luntz’s “blame government” narrative. The answer, as Hart Research pollster Guy Molyneaux explains in The New York Times, quoting almost verbatim from the Progressive Economic Narrative, is that “the important question facing America today is not how big government should be so much as who government should work for: corporations and the wealthy, or all Americans?”

As Molyneaux points out, “That is a debate Democrats can and will win.”

What even progressive Democrats need to do better is tell a story about how to create that economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy. This is a matter of both clear narrative and bold policy.

The core of our economic theory is, as we say in the Progressive Economic Narrative, “working people and the middle class are the engines of the economy.” Another version of this, popularized by the Center for American Progress, is “we build the economy from the middle out, not trickle-down.”

The story we are telling is that people are the job creators, not businesses. That raising the minimum wage is not just about fairness, but about creating economy-boosting jobs that put money in people’s pockets to spend in their communities. “We all do better when we all do better” is not just a statement of values; it’s the progressive belief about how the economy works.

Our narrative connects to policy with the phrase “we build a strong middle class by decisions we make together.” Democrats need to step up with bold policies, many of which are already out there, waiting to be championed. Here are just three:

1.     A massive public investment to dramatically increase the use of clean energy — which would at the same time tackle the challenge of climate disruption — with a requirement that all the jobs created pay wages that can support a family.

2.     A $15/hour minimum wage that grows with productivity, so that workers get their fare share of the wealth they create.

3.     A robust system of public financing that would allow candidates to win office without taking big campaign contributions from anyone, addressing the public’s belief that the rich call the shots.

One thing Democrats had better not say is, “Oh, what’s the narrative? What do we say about the economy?” Progressives have a powerful narrative and bold solutions to create an America and an economy that works for all of us, not just the wealthy. Candidates who run on this have won and will win. And an America that runs on these policies will do to what too many Americans no longer believe is possible: provide a better life for our children.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Advisor 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.

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog.

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Photo: Hillary Clinton stumps for U.S. Sen. Al Franken and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, middle, at the Leonard Center Field House at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, on Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)

 

Corporate Tax Deserters

Corporations love to wrap themselves in the flag with sun-drenched TV commercials that proclaim a deep devotion to American workers and communities. But when it comes to actually taking responsibility for supporting the workers and communities that create the conditions for corporate profits, a record number of big businesses are deserting America.

Burger King is the latest corporation to announce it is moving to Canada — at least on paper — where it will pay lower taxes. In the past three years alone, at least 21 companies have completed or announced mergers with foreign corporations to avoid taxes in an operation known as “inversion.” That compares with 75 over the past 30 years. These only-on-paper moves will gouge a $20 billion tax loophole over the next decade.

These companies may be moving their taxes overseas, but they’re not ending their reliance on the U.S. government to operate profitably. They are just shirking their responsibility to pay for what they get. The companies still make money in the United States, where they hire workers educated by public schools, ship their goods on public roads, are kept safe by local police officers and firefighters, and protect their patents in America’s courts.

Of course, small businesses and American families can’t play the same traitorous game. We can’t hire lawyers and accountants to pretend to ship our homes and our income overseas. And most of us wouldn’t do that if we could.

We understand that paying taxes is part of our basic obligation as citizens and essential to building strong communities.

What we do resent about taxes is that the current system is upside down — big corporations and the wealthy game the system so they pay a smaller share of their income in taxes than working families and small business. The share of profits corporations spend on taxes stands at a record low. And those profits are reaching record highs.

It’s time to turn the tax system right side up by closing the tax loopholes that allow billionaires and huge corporations to escape paying their fair share to support the country that made them rich.

The Obama administration just took a major step to do that. Tiring of Republican objections to closing the corporate tax deserter loophole, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced he was issuing new regulations aimed at making it much harder for companies to reap tax benefits from an offshore move.

This step may curb some corporate desertion. In the long run, it would be best if Congress took action. Two bills (S2360 and HR4679) would end the current practice of treating corporate deserters as foreign companies when they are still really based right here.

Consumers can play a role too. In August, Walgreens — which bills itself as “America’s drugstore” — abandoned its plan to dodge $4 billion in taxes in the next five years by changing its corporate address to Switzerland. Walgreens reversed course when outraged consumers protested at its stores and on the Internet.

This nation faces huge challenges in building an economy that works for all of us. If we plan to build a better future for our children, we must insist that corporations be held accountable for their responsibilities to our families and communities.

Richard Kirsch is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and the author of Fighting for Our Health: The Epic Battle to Make Health Care a Right in the United States. He’s also a senior advisor to USAction. 

Cross-posted from OtherWords.org

Photo: SEIU via Flickr

 

Port Drivers Take On Low Wages In An Industry Built On A Lie

Port truck drivers aren’t independent contractors: They’re employees of companies that pay them too little for long hours, with no benefits or worker protections.

It’s a David and Goliath story, only in this case there are 120 Davids taking on a hidden Goliath of an industry that every day touches everyone who is reading this in hundreds of ways. The port trucking industry is built on an illegal fiction, designed to rip off the 120 drivers who went on strike at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach this week.

They are not alone; 49,000 port truck drivers around the country work long hours at low pay with no benefits or basic worker protections like unemployment insurance or workers’ compensation, because the industry misclassifies them as independent contractors. The drivers’ courageous action is one more facet of a surging labor and community movement, which is starting to take on the captains of America’s low-wage economy.

Virtually everything you are wearing now that was made overseas came through our nation’s ports. So did every imported item in your office or home. Port truck drivers transported those goods from ship terminals to rail yards and warehouse centers, for distribution to stores around the country. Starting more than 30 years ago, when the trucking industry was deregulated during the Carter administration, the industry was taken over by firms with a business model based on driving down drivers’ incomes by treating them as independent contractors instead of employees.

The new model was based on a lie. The drivers weren’t really independent truck drivers, with their own rigs. They still worked for one distribution company, which totally controlled everything about their work – their hours, their shipments, the rates they were paid. The company supplied the trucks they drove. But by insisting the drivers accept the new arrangement if they wanted to work, the companies avoided paying payroll taxes, workers’ compensation, and unemployment benefits, let alone health or retirement benefits. The drivers were forced to pay to lease, fuel and maintain the trucks out of their own paychecks.

The result of this scam has been high profits for the companies, lower wages and no workplace protections for the drivers, plus big losses to the social insurance funds. This arrangement put employers who complied with the law by continuing to treat their workers as employees at a competitive disadvantage.

The port drivers’ story is emblematic of the forces that crushed America’s middle class. Good paying, often union jobs were replaced by low-wage, no-benefit jobs. “Manufactured in the U.S.” was displaced by foreign goods, sold to consumers through the Walmarts and Home Depots and other giant retailers that perch at the end of global supply chains. Government, stripped of resources and will by corporate lobbyists and their wholly owned elected officials, sat by while the law was violated and social insurance programs were weakened. And corporate profits soared.

But times are beginning to change. The strike in Southern California carries with it all the elements and power of the new movement of low-wage workers and their allies to create a good jobs economy. The foundation of the strategy is the willingness of low-wage workers to risk their jobs to fight back. The strategy is driven by strategic, legal, and financial assistance supplied by labor unions, partnerships with community groups, and public campaigns against big brand names.

The strikers, like many other port drivers, are mostly immigrants who often don’t speak English. Only recently did they become aware that their rights were being violated, after a free legal clinic was set up by two community groups at the port. Since then, drivers have filed more than 400 claims against companies under California’s wage and hour laws. The first 19 rulings resulted in an average award of $66,240, largely for wage and hour violations and illegal paycheck deductions for items like truck leases.

The claims are part of an aggressive legal strategy, which includes filings under California’s wage and hour laws, class-action suits, and claims that the companies are violating federal labor laws. The goal is for the firms to face such an onslaught of fines and court orders that they will begin to realize it would be better to abide by the law, rather than continue to defend their practices in court. California Attorney General Kamala Harris could be hugely helpful here if she used the growing number of cases to insist on an industrywide compliance settlement.

The companies are fighting back. “It’s all-out war,” an attorney for two workers who were fired for both supporting a union and pressing wage claims, told me. Green Fleet, the company that fired the workers and one of the companies being picketed, is using the full arsenal of union-busting tactics, including firing workers who are leading union efforts and hiring union busters who threaten workers. The company’s goal is to terrify other workers, so that they won’t support forming a union or file wage claims.

The NLRB ruled in the workers’ favor, establishing that they are employees, not independent contractors, but Green Fleet is appealing in order to delay any relief. The fired workers’ attorneys are asking a federal judge to immediately order the companies to rehire the workers who were fired and to inform all the workers of their right to form a union and protest unfair labor practices.

In the face of this illegal harassment, the 120 drivers at Green Fleet and other firms walked off the job. They want to join the Teamsters union, which is providing key strategic support to their efforts through their Justice for Port Drivers campaign. Many drivers recently saw the benefits of unionization when drivers won union representation at Toll Global Holdings, an Australian based company, which is unionized in their home country. The unionized drivers actually get paid for the hours they spend waiting to pick up merchandise, and receive better wages and benefits.

Los Angeles’ well-organized community-labor coalition, led by LAANE, has turned out hundreds of picketers to join the drivers. The picketers block company trucks driven by drivers who have not joined the strike. The pickets create even longer lines of trucks at the marine terminals, where ships arrive with containers full of goods. This is one way that the strikers can exercise the economic power to get the companies to settle. The Teamsters report that already some terminals have told the companies being struck to stop picking up goods in order to clear the blockade.

Another weapon in the campaign is public pressure on the big brands that are the ultimate beneficiaries of the low-wages paid to the port drivers. All of Skechers shoes are delivered by Green Fleet. Protesters attended Skechers’ annual shareholder meetings, have leafleted stores, and this week had a plane fly over the company’s flagship L.A. store with a banner that read, “Skechers – laced with misery.” As LAANE’s Danny Feingold points out, unlike some other retailers, such as Nike, Skechers has refused to sign a code of conduct with labor standards for its contractors.

Another element in the port drivers’ campaign, as in low-wage workers’ campaigns nationally, is a push to change public policy. There are some 75,000 port drivers around the country, of whom 49,000 are misclassified as independent contractors. The New York and New Jersey legislatures both passed bills in the last year toughening standards and enforcement for misclassification of port truck drivers. While New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie vetoed that state’s billthe New York legislation signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo includes strict standards and most importantly, civil and criminal penalties.

There is a new movement growing in America, comprised of courageous low-wage workers and backed by unions, community groups, and activists to take on the huge companies that drive the low-wage economy. From fast food, to Walmart, to workers who make car seats and immigrants who wash cars, the movement is learning a new strategy, based on mobilizing workers and the public. The twin goals of this movement are to enable workers to organize unions and to enact new public policy to rebuild the middle class. You can support the movement now, and lend a hand to port drivers who are on strike, by making with a contribution to the Justice for Drivers Hardship Fund. Remember, the device on which you are reading this now was delivered by a port driver.

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.

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog.

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Photo: Barry Lewis via Flickr

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SCOTUS Ruling Doesn’t Gut Public Unions, But Creates New Challenges For Care Workers

The Supreme Court’s decision in Harris v. Quinn will make it harder for home care and child care workers to organize for better pay and higher quality jobs.

A huge sigh of relief mixed with curses. That’s my reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision today to block home care workers in Illinois from being required to pay union dues, while continuing to allow public-employee unions to collect dues from all the workers they represent. The decision in Harris v. Quinn blocks the right-wing assault against one of the most important pillars of progressive infrastructure, public-employee unions, but will add to the challenge of raising wages and benefits in the surging low-wage workforce.

First, some background on the case: As part of the right’s ongoing attack on working people, a right-wing legal group recruited a handful of home care workers in Illinois to challenge the state’s requirement that the workers pay union dues. The workers are employed by individual patients but are funded by Medicaid.

Having unions, in this case SEIU, represent home care workers is part of an admirable strategy to extend collective bargaining to workers who are publicly funded even if they do not work directly for the government. Since federal law does not provide collective bargaining rights to either public employees or domestic home care workers, using state law to organize these workers, who typically receive low pay with no benefits, is vitally important to their own well-being and to building a middle-class-driven economy.

The National Right to Work Foundation’s attorney argued, as Lyle Denniston explains at SCOTUSblog, that “anything a public-employee union does is an attempt to shape matters of ‘public concern,’ and it should not be able to compel support — even for part of the monthly dues — from workers who oppose the union’s public policy ambitions.”

If the Court had followed that logic, it would have reversed its own precedent, set in the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision, which held that public employees could be required to pay dues for collective bargaining but not for purely political purposes. Fortunately, the Court didn’t go there today, which means that states and localities, which have the power to regulate public employee unions, will continue to be able to require that all employees who work directly for the government pay dues to the union that represents them. While this should have been a no-brainer given the Court’s precedent, it is a huge relief and enormously important to preserving the ability of public employees to organize together for decent wages and benefits. And it is clear defeat for the right’s campaign to eviscerate one of the most important progressive institutions.

Instead, the Court’s decision today focused on whether home care workers are fully public employees. In a 5-4 ruling written by Justice Samuel Alito, it decided that these workers are only partial-public employees and so cannot be required to pay dues to a union that represents them. The ruling will make it much more difficult to organize the growing number of low-wage workers who care for the elderly and disabled through home care and for young children through child care.

Home care and child care workers get paid very little, have few benefits, and make up a big chunk of the surge in low-wage jobs that defines today’s economy. But it is a huge challenge to organize workers who are directly employed by individuals. The answer has been to take advantage of the fact that the public is paying for a big chunk of their earnings by treating them as public employees, as Illinois governor Pat Quinn did in the Harris v. Quinn case. The Court’s rejection of this approach creates new roadblocks to home care and child care workers who are attempting to organize unions capable of bargaining for better pay and higher quality jobs.

The solution may to be to have the public take over home care and child care. If public agencies employed these caregivers, financed as they are now by a combination of public funds and sliding-fee payments by the individuals who use their services, these workers would be full-fledged public employees. This strategy will require a major change in the organization of care, but should be tested where there are progressive local and state governments. Its success would be a deliciously ironic turn against the right’s campaign to shrink government, and a big step toward creating a good-jobs economy to power an America that works for all of us.

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

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog.

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

AFP Photo/Karen Bleier

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CEO Performance Pay Is Bad For Everyone Except CEOs

Executive compensation is soaring while workers and taxpayers feel the squeeze. A new Roosevelt Institute white paper explains why.

Americans hate the fact that CEOs of big corporations keep raking in millions while the incomes of most American households are sinking. Now a new Roosevelt Institute white paper by University of Massachusetts economist William Lazonick adds to the growing case that soaring CEO pay is not just unfair, but harmful. It’s bad for businesses, workers, and taxpayers, and it’s one of the reasons that the economy remains sluggish.

Lazonick details the myriad ways by which CEOs pump up their wages, painting a picture of crony capitalism in the boardroom and at the SEC. CEOs pad their boards of directors with other CEOs, who are all eager to hike each other’s pay. They hire from the same pool of compensation consultants, who then recommend to all of their boards why each of them deserves to be paid more.

Almost all executive pay, which was back to its pre-recession average high of $30 million a year by 2012, is delivered in the form of stock. This exploits a policy loophole that taxes compensation of more than $1 million unless it falls into the category known as “performance pay.” Meanwhile, the CEOs and their teams of lobbyists and lawyers have gotten a compliant SEC to issue a host of rulings that invite stock price manipulation. The resulting higher prices are considered proof of better performance, and also instantly deliver millions to the CEOs through their stock options. Very neat.

Lazonick explains that corporations’ favorite method of boosting stock prices is buying back their own stock. While a firm is required to notify the public of its intention to buy back its stock, it doesn’t have to say when it will do so, which fuels price-boosting speculation and allows the firm to time its repurchases to maximize the CEO’s gains.

The justification given by economists for stock-based performance pay is that corporations should be run to maximize shareholder value, and paying CEOs in stock aligns their performance with the purpose of their firm. But as my business school finance professor told a shocked classroom of my fellow students, the economic purpose of the firm does not have to be maximizing value for shareholders. The firm could just as easily be dedicated to maximizing the value for workers or communities or society at large.

Lazonick’s version of this fundamental critique of corporate capitalism is that it is not only shareholders who have an investment in a corporation. Taxpayers invest in corporations through the public infrastructure and educated workforce corporations depend on. Workers invest through their contributions to corporate innovation. Taxpayers and workers lose if the corporation’s core economic performance – as opposed to the price of its stock – declines. The result is fewer people working, less tax revenue, and diminished community life. But CEO pay just keeps going up regardless.

Lazonick argues that the CEO focus on stock buybacks has distracted them from investing in innovation to sustain their companies over the long run. It may also be true that in the absence of consumer demand, the CEOs see no better use for excess cash than to reward themselves and shareholders. But in fact, the stock market focus of U.S. industrial corporations, which has eroded middle-class wages and employment, is a big reason for lower domestic consumer demand. In contrast, Lazonick points out that Apple, which did minimal buybacks from 1994 through 2011, found no lack of consumer demand for its innovative products.

The alternate economic paradigm laid out by Lazonick is to reward workers and taxpayers for their investments in a firm. That would not only be more just, it would also move the economy forward. If workers got paid more, it would increase consumer demand. The government could use the taxes collected to create jobs that would enhance infrastructure, improve education, and strengthen community services, all of which would add directly to economic progress. And innovative companies would benefit from tax-supported government spending and motivated, experienced workers.

Lazonick lays out steps the SEC could take to reduce the use of buybacks to manipulate stock prices. He would also give workers significant representation on corporate boards. That makes great sense in theory, but would only work if we first dramatically strengthen labor law.

Taxpayers would benefit from legislation proposed in both the House (HR 3970) and Senate (S 1476), which would close the performance pay loophole and cap the deductibility of CEO compensation at $1 million. That would increase federal tax revenue by several billion dollars a year. But even if all that money were invested in job creation, it would not be enough to generate the kind of growth we need to spur significant demand. I think it would be unlikely to decrease compensation much either. It is more likely that corporate boards would consider the taxes part of the cost of doing business rather than reduce pay for their fellow conspirators.

All of which is to say that, as with so many issues related to the core problem facing our economy – the concentration of wealth among a select few – it will take a seismic political shift to enact the kind of policies we need not only to limit CEO pay, but to build an economy driven by broadly shared prosperity.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Advisor 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.

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog.

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Photo: Ervins Strauhmanis via Flickr

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In The Wake Of McCutcheon, Can Democracy Tame Capital?

With wealth concentrating in the hands of the few, and the Supreme Court handing even greater political power to those with big money, what can be done to protect democracy?

The Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision, making it even easier for the rich to buy political power, highlights the big question raised by Thomas Piketty’s new instant economic classic, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. What chance is there for our democracy to stop the relentless accumulation of wealth by the richest few?

The core lesson of Piketty’s book, based on extensive analysis of data, is that, as Eduard Porter summarized in the The New York Times, “the economic forces concentrating more and more wealth in the hands of the fortunate few are almost sure to prevail for a very long time.” Piketty says that as the return to capital exceeds economic growth, an ever larger share of national income goes to the owners of capital, the managers of capital and to their heirs.

Economics can’t reverse this, Piketty warns. Only “political action can make this go in the other direction,” he told Porter. The political action he recommends is global taxation of wealth and highly progressive income taxes. As James Galbraith points out in a review of Piketty’s book in Dissent, labor policies like raising the minimum wage and empowering labor unions would also work to share increases in national income more fairly and reduce income inequality, as would robust inheritance taxes.

Policy solutions are easy to come up with. The enormous challenge is that the more wealth is concentrated, the harder it becomes to enact those policies.

That’s not how it is supposed to work in a democracy. In theory, if the great majority of people are doing worse, while a few are doing much better, the majority should be able to change the policy at the voting booth. As just about anyone in America will tell you – from the Tea Partiers who decry crony capitalism to the Occupiers who rail against the 1 percent (I’m with them) – that’s not happening.

In the last few years, several academic studies by Larry Bartels and others have documented that what the rich believe prevails in politics and what the rest of us think has relatively little impact. The most recent study, released last month, was summarized in Forbes this way:

…[T]hose who have assets worth $40 million or more hold undue sway over the positions politicians take on issues ranging from health care to global warming to defense spending. The wealthiest Americans, contends the paper, are more conservative than the public as a whole on many issues, and U.S. public policy reflects that.

That academics are finding what everyone outside of the five-member conservative majority in the Supreme Court believes – money buys influence, not just access – is gratifying, but hardly surprising. Of course, the political clout of the wealthy is based on more than just campaign cash. It’s control of major media and of much of academia. It’s control of people’s lives, so that corporations can threaten to cut jobs due to pro-labor policies and those threats are too scary for many people to risk challenging. It’s the prevalence and convergence of the conservative narrative, creating the “false consciousness” that leads so many people to vote against their own economic self-interest.

If we look to American history for guidance on whether democracy can rally, the lessons are not clear. For the first three centuries of European settlement of the United States, the opportunities offered by the expanding frontier relieved the pressure for economic justice. But as the frontier closed, the political pressure for policies to rein in corporate concentration and provide basic labor rights intensified. The result was the landmark legislation enacted in the Progressive era, from income and inheritance taxes to child labor laws to trust-busting. But that didn’t stop the huge rise in income inequality that led up to the stock market crash of 1929.

The New Deal provides more positive evidence that if it gets bad enough for enough people, the political system will respond dramatically: regulating finance, establishing labor standards and the right to organize, providing for social insurance, government job creation. Still, it took a world war for the political system to make the all-out investment in jobs and conditions for growth that built the great post-World War II middle-class.

So where does that leave us in 2014, after 40 years of slowly stagnating wages and gradual but relentless shrinking of middle-class reality and hopes? My first boss, Ralph Nader, wrote that “pessimism has no survival value” and 39 years after he hired me I continue to follow that advice. I can see many positive signs that we can successfully organize the political will for progressive policies to create an America that works for all of us, not just the wealthy few.

Most encouraging are new movements, by low-wage workers and by people demanding we stop killing the planet. I’m encouraged by the Millennial generation’s belief in community and embracing of diversity. And by the rising American electorate of women and communities of color who share with Millennials a belief in collective action to care for our loved ones and our communities. I’m lifted by the election of a growing number of economic progressives to local and state leadership and most recently to Congress. All of these groups share a deep concern about the state of our democracy, reminding us as well that with a switch of just one vote, the Supreme Court can reverse the disastrous Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions, as well as the damage done by striking down key parts of the Voting Rights Act.

Can the powerful forces Piketty describes by turned back by a resurgent democracy? Two thousand years ago, Plutarch observed, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” The stakes in the 21st century are still that great. Don’t mourn: organize.

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.

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog.

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

AFP Photo/Karen Bleier

The ACA In Threes: The Good, The Bad And The Ways To Make It Better

With the first open enrollment period ending Monday, consider some successes, outrages, and bug fixes for the Affordable Care Act (ACA). 

The Good: Three Big Successes of ACA:

The Affordable Care Act is saving people’s lives: Already. Like Kathy Bentzoni, a Pennsylvania schoolbus driver, who dropped her old insurance because it was expensive and rejecting claims because of her pre-existing conditions. After getting ACA coverage at $55 a month, she was able to seek care: “They found my hemoglobin level was 5.7, and the normal is 14. I needed a transfusion. It was due to a rare blood disorder. Where would I be without Obamacare? ER, 3 units of blood, multiple tests in the hospital and a 5-day inpatient stay without insurance? Probably dead.” Kathy was not alone in that fear – studies show that tens of thousands of people each year die because they don’t have health coverage.

Medicaid enrollment is a bigger success than expected: Not only is Medicaid enrolling people who are eligible for the first time – 4.6 million of them – but almost another 2 million more are enrolling who were eligible before, but had not applied. In the big push to get people to sign up for the ACA, many people who have been eligible in the past applied for the first time.

Seniors on Medicare are saving money, getting better care: While most seniors don’t think that the ACA has anything to do with them, it does. Last year, 37 million people on Medicare – seniors and people with disabilities – received free preventive care. Since the law was enacted, 8 million people enrolled in Medicare have saved $10 billion on prescription drugs, as the prescription “donut hole’ closes. And for the first time in 30 years, hospital readmission rates for people on Medicare are coming down, because hospitals are now penalized for pushing people out before they are ready.

The Bad: Three Outrages Against the ACA

States that have refused to expand Medicaid: In an example of partisan politics killing people, Republicans in 24 states have refused to expand Medicaid, leaving 5 million people who would be eligible for coverage without any recourse.

Koch brothers campaign to discourage young people from signing up: In an example of billionaires killing people, the Koch brothers have funded tasteless ads and campus beer parties in an attempt to keep young people from signing up for insurance on the exchanges.

Republican lies about job loss and the ACA: One advantage of the ACA is that it gives people the freedom to leave their jobs or reduce their work hours, and still be able to get affordable coverage. When the Congressional Budget Office estimated that 2.3 million American workers would gain this freedom over the next 8 years, Republicans falsely claimed that it would cost jobs. If anything, it will create jobs for people who fill in for those who take advantage of their new freedom. I thought Republicans liked freedom.

The Ways to Make it Better: Three Big Fixes for the ACA:

Allow Medicare to operate in the exchanges: The best way to bring price competition and access to virtually ever doctor and hospital in the exchanges would be to have Medicare offer a plan (without age requirements) in every exchange. This is the easiest and most effective way to bring back the public option.

Base the employer mandate on a play or payroll tax: As I’ve explained here, the best way to get rid of the convoluted system of employers paying a penalty for employees who work more than 30 yours a week, would be to have employers who don’t provide coverage pay a percentage of payroll for health care, just like employers now do for Social Security.

Lower the premiums and out-of-pocket costs: While the ACA is providing affordable coverage for millions – and will offer lower premiums than 29 million people are paying now – they are still too high for many families. And the out-of-pocket costs in the cheaper plans are way too high. The subsidies should be increased for middle-income people – funded by progressive taxes – and the high-out-of-pocket plans ended.

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.

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog.

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Republicans Can’t Win By Attacking Health Care In 2014

For me, the fact that Republicans keep using the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – as a political football is a tragedy. Sure, the law has problems, but it is already saving lives and improving the health of millions of Americans.

Thankfully, it seems that Republicans who are counting on attacking the health reform system to get them into the end zone will be stopped short of the goal line based on numbers coming out of a March special election for a Florida House seat

For me, the Affordable Care Act comes down to people’s lives and health. Consider the story of a young man I met who told me that this new avenue to becoming insured had saved his life.

He had some symptoms that made him worry about his health. But he, like many Americans without insurance, ignored them, as he couldn’t afford to see the doctor. After the Affordable Care Act became law, he got coverage through his parents’ health insurance plan, and on visiting a doctor, found out he had stage 4 — that’s advanced — cancer. Fortunately, he got to the doctor in time to save his life.

That young man is far from alone. As of the end of February, some 11 million Americans have health coverage under the new law. Repealing it, as Republicans continue to insist, would take away coverage from each and every one of them.

In the Florida election, Republican David Jolly said “I’m fighting to repeal Obamacare, right away.” His opponent, Democrat Alex Sink, countered, “We can’t go back to insurance companies doing whatever they want. Instead of repealing the health care law, we need to keep what’s right and fix what’s wrong.”

The key part of Sink’s message was to remind voters why people wanted health care reform in the first place. As one of Sink’s TV ads said, “Jolly would go back to letting insurance companies deny coverage.”

That’s an effective reminder of the huge problems Americans have had for decades, when insurance companies could deny care because of a pre-existing condition, charge people higher rates because they were sick, and even charge women higher rates than men. The ACA ended all that.

The candidates in Florida pushed especially hard for the votes of seniors, which is not surprising given both Florida’s high senior population and the fact that seniors vote more frequently than other age groups.

In its ads for Jolly, The Republican Congressional Campaign repeated the same misleading charge that Republicans used successfully in 2010 to scare seniors against the ACA, that it cut $716 billion from Medicare. But unlike 2010, when Democrats did not respond to attacks on the ACA, Sink pushed back.

She reminded seniors that the ACA actually provides important new Medicare benefits, including closing the infamous prescription drug “donut hole.” Sink’s ads accurately said, “His [Jolly’s] plan would even force seniors to pay thousands more for prescription drugs.”

By Election Day, voters had a clear contrast between the positions of the candidates on the ACA. It was a close election, with Jolly winning by a small margin (48.4 percent to 46.5 percent) in a district with an 11-point Republican advantage, one that has been represented by the GOP for nearly 60 years.

But polling found that independent voters in the district supported the “keep and fix” position over the “repeal” position by a margin of 57 percent to 31 percent. Sink actually gained ground over Jolly during the election on the question of which candidate had a better position on the ACA.

I am very much looking forward to the time when Congress can start having real debates on how, as Sink said, “we can keep what’s right and fix what’s wrong” with the Affordable Care Act. However, it looks like it will take at least one more election, in 2014, to get us to that point.

We will turn the corner if progressives do not sit on the sidelines, but instead welcome the debate that Republicans insist on having about repealing the ACA.

That debate is an opportunity for people to be reminded in concrete terms that the new health care program, for all its shortcomings, is about providing every American with the peace of mind that comes with having health coverage.

Richard Kirsch is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and the author of Fighting for Our Health: The Epic Battle to Make Health Care a Right in the United States. He’s also a senior advisor to USAction.

Cross-posted from Other Words

Photo: Speaker Boehner via Flickr

In VW Vote, Republicans Fight The Really Radical Idea That Workers Should Have A Voice In Business

When a company is not fighting against a union, why do that union’s efforts fail — and what does that say about the U.S. model for labor?

Current management theory recognizes that businesses do better when employees are involved in decision making. But that trend ran smack into the paternalistic view that workers are replaceable parts in the narrow vote by workers at Volkswagen (VW) in Chattanooga, Tennessee to reject the United Auto Workers (UAW). Here was a case where right-wing politicians, who usually worship at the altar of business, decided that a business that actually valued its employees’ ideas was un-American.

In many ways what is remarkable about the vote of workers at a VW plant in Tennessee to reject the UAW was how close it was. Despite an aggressive campaign against the union by the state’s Republican leadership, if just 43 workers out of 1,338 had switched their votes, the union would have been voted in. The 626 workers who voted yes stood up to a campaign of intimidation by elected officials and right-wing organizations that threaten not just their jobs, but harm to communities in the rest of the state. When it is so much safer to say no, we should recognize the guts of the hundreds of workers who, by voting yes, declared that they deserved respect at their workplace.

The main motivation for even having the union vote in Tennessee was not what most people assume, which would be to increase wages and benefits. While wages at the VW plant are far from enough to put workers comfortably in the middle class, they are in line with wages paid to newly hired employees at plants represented by the UAW. In today’s era of diminished expectations by workers (and heightened ones by shareholders), VW workers in Tennessee were not organizing for a raise. Instead, they were calling for the establishment of European style works councils, which give workers a role in key decision making at the factory.

Works councils are common throughout Western Europe, and are often legally required at businesses with as few as five employees. Typically elected by all the workers at a business, including union and non-union members, the works councils join management in a range of decisions, including monitoring and enforcement of employment and occupational safety and health laws, setting work and production schedules, introducing new technology, and downsizing the plant. To facilitate their role, the members of the works council have the right to information about financial and business matters, employment levels and structural changes to the work environment.

Clearly, works councils would be a lot more revolutionary in U.S. businesses than voting in a union, because works councils establish a right to what was called in the early days of union organizing “industrial democracy.” They give workers a real voice at work. Companies like VW have found, in line with modern management theory, that giving workers a voice is good for business.

Organizing the Southern auto plants established by foreign auto companies over the past two decades is a top priority of the United Auto Workers. The auto companies were attracted to the South by a combination of low wages, workers with manufacturing experience, both laws and a political climate that discourage unionization, access to growing markets, and huge state-government tax incentives.  In 2008, Tennessee awarded VW a package worth $577 million to build the plant in Chattanooga, the richest package ever awarded to a foreign auto manufacturer at the time.

The UAW decided to try a new strategy in its organizing effort at VW in Chattanooga, based on establishing a works council. The councils operate at every VW plant in the world, except those in China and the U.S. However, under American labor law, VW cannot establish a works council on its own. When the National Labor Relations Act was enacted in 1935, it was common for employers to set up unions they controlled, as a way to block unions that would really represent the workers. To prevent company-controlled unions, the NLRA prohibited the kind of joint management-worker decision-making bodies envisioned by a works council. For the UAW, VW’s openness to a works council presented a new avenue for organizing.

While much has been made in the press about VW signing a neutrality agreement with the UAW, that act does not mean that VW’s American managers welcomed the union. Under the neutrality accord, VW rejected common anti-union practices among U.S. employers, like refusing to allow the union to speak with workers onsite, requiring workers to attend anti-union meetings and harassing union supporters. However, the UAW too made concessions, including agreeing not to meet with workers in their homes, which is one of the most powerful ways of building support and leadership for unions.

The main visible opposition at the factory came from salaried workers and low-level supervisors, who are not part of management but also were not eligible to vote in the union election, another barrier in American labor law. Mike Elk, who covered the vote for In These Times, reports many of these employees adopted the traditional view of American managers, that the union has no interest in producing quality cars and would interfere with corporate decisions. In the hierarchical American work culture, it is not surprising that workers who have been given some authority might be resentful of ceding some of their new power to a council that included hourly workers.

Still, the close vote made it absolutely clear that the deciding factor was the strident opposition of Republican U.S. senator Bob Corker, Republican governor Bill Haslam and Republican legislative leaders, who said that a vote for the UAW would scare other auto manufacturers away from Tennessee and dry up any more state support for expanding production at the factory. They made these threats even though GM announced this summer that it will add 1,800 jobs to a UAW organized factory in Spring Hills, Tennessee.

The vote in Chattanooga should be seen as another skirmish in the growing debate about the role of workers in driving the 21st-century economy. Southern politicians’ strong anti-union stance has roots in racist opposition to unions, which gave African-Americans a voice at work and better wages. Their virulent anti-union stance today continues the suppression of wages that has impeded the Southern economy from the days of slavery. But today, the Southern low-wage strategy has become a national model, led by the behemoth of Southern companies, today’s largest employer, Walmart.

The vote at VW highlights how the U.S.’s antiquated labor laws block economic progress. If the law allowed the establishment of works councils without the requirement that a union win a majority vote, it would provide a new vehicle to improve the performance and competitiveness of U.S. firms. The continued strength of many European manufacturers, even facing global competition from firms in lower-wage countries, demonstrates that giving workers a voice strengthens business. That lesson, a foundational assumption in the high-tech sector, makes sense for American manufacturers too. If our goal is to build an economy of broadly shared prosperity, giving workers a real voice in business decisions is a far better way to compete than slashing wages.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Advisor 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.

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog.

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Photo: Dave Pinter via Flickr

Republican Alternative To Obamacare: Pay More, Get Less, Put The Insurance Companies Back In Charge

Now that Republicans have put out an alternative to the Affordable Care Act, Democrats should emphasize what a repeal would really mean for Americans’ health.

Boy, can Democrats have fun with the new Republican alternative to Obamacare. It puts the health insurance companies back in charge and raises costs for almost all Americans. In particular, it substantially raises costs and threatens to cut coverage for the half of all Americans who get health insurance at work. Seniors, the group that Republicans have scared witless about Obamacare, would lose the real benefits they receive under Obamacare. The proposal from three Republican senators is a golden opportunity for Democrats to contrast the specific benefits of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) with what a repeal-and-replace agenda would really mean for Americans’ lives and health.

When it comes to the politics of health care reform, my first adage is “the solution is the problem.” That is because once you get past vague generalities, like lowering costs and making coverage available, to proposing specifics, people will look to see how the proposals impact them personally. This is why health reform is such a political nightmare. Unlike most public policy issues, the impact is very understandable and real.

With the ACA as the law of the land, in analyzing the Republican proposal we must compare its impact to the law it would repeal. The pre-ACA model of health insurance is irrelevant. Here is how the Republican plan would impact people, compared with the ACA:

People who get health insurance at work – bottom line: pay more for worse coverage.

Almost half of all Americans (48 percent), or 148 million people, obtain health insurance at work. The Republican plan would tax 35 percent of the average cost of health insurance benefits at work. This is a big tax increase on working people and is extraordinarily unpopular, as the Obama campaign used to devastating impact on John McCain. And while people would pay more, they would get less coverage, as the GOP plan would allow insurance companies to once again limit the amount of benefits they will pay out in one year and return to the day when employers could offer bare-bones plans.

While taxing health benefits would apply to all employer-provided coverage, the Republicans would give the 30 percent of people who work for businesses who employ fewer than 100 workers a tax credit. That might balance out the increased taxes for some people. However, doing so would create a huge set of economic distortions, as employers might seek to keep firm size under the 100-employee threshold.

Individuals who buy coverage on their own or who are uninsured – bottom line: insurance companies could again deny coverage for pre-existing conditions and offer bare-bones coverage, while the cost of decent coverage would go up for most people.

This is the group that the ACA is most aimed at helping, including the 5 percent of Americans who buy private health insurance and the 15 percent who are uninsured, totaling 64 million people. The ACA offers income-based subsidies to these people when they earn between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) and enrolls people under 133 percent of FPL in Medicaid, when states agree.

The Republican plan is toughest, in comparison with the ACA, on the lowest-income people and on the higher-income middle class, compared with Obamacare. But many families in between will do worse too.

The Republican plan would wipe out the expansion of Medicaid to people earning less than 133 percent of FPL, a provision the Supreme Court has made optional. It would cut back on Medicaid, ending the federal government’s offer to pay 90 percent of the cost of expanded coverage and replacing that with the federal government paying what it has paid historically, which is between half and three-quarters of the cost of Medicaid, with poorer states getting a bigger share. Crucially, the funding would only be for pregnant women, children and parents with dependent children who earn under the poverty level, as opposed to the ACA’s funding of all adults up to 133 percent of FPL. That means many fewer people covered and states getting less Medicaid money. Republican governors may not complain, but you can bet hospitals will. Adults without dependent children would not be covered by federal Medicaid, which means millions will stay uninsured or lose coverage they now have, unless states pay for coverage without federal support.

For individuals not covered by Medicaid or employees of firms with fewer than 100 workers, the Republican plan would replace the ACA’s sliding-scale subsidies, which now go to 400 percent of FPL, with a subsidy that is the same for everyone of the same age who is under 200 percent of FPL and lowersubsidies for people from 200 percent to 300 percent. In addition, the subsidies would be higher for older people than younger. The Republican plan also would take away the requirements that insurance plans offer decent benefits and free preventive care and charge women the same prices as men for coverage, along with every other consumer protection, with the exception of keeping in place no lifetime caps for covered benefits.

Comparing the value of the Republican plan subsidies vs. the ACA subsidies for the people who would still qualify depends on income, age, and family size. Generally, it appears that the Republican subsidies are much less than the ACA for people under 150 percent of the FPL ($35,000 for a family of four) and much less than the ACA for younger people, but more for older people. However, insurance rates for younger people would go down some at the expense of older people, who insurance companies could charge a lot more than under ACA. And families with incomes above $70,000 for a family of four would lose subsidies entirely.

Seniors and the disabled on Medicare – bottom line: seniors would pay more for prescription drugs and preventive care.

By repealing the ACA, the Republican plan would take away its two concrete benefits for seniors. One is that preventive care services are now free under Medicare (as they are under all insurance). The other is that the ACA is lowering drug prices for seniors by slowly closing the “donut hole,” under which seniors must pay the full cost of prescription drugs even though they are paying premiums for drug coverage. In other words, the Republican plan is simply bad news for seniors, the constituency that they have scared the most about Obamacare… groundlessly.

It is not surprising that Republicans have been reluctant to come up with a replacement for Obamacare. It’s much easier to throw darts – or bombs – at the ACA than to come up with a replacement that meets Republican ideological tenets of less regulation and less government. Any plan that meets the ideological test will be much worse for people in ways they can understand. It is our job to explain it to the public clearly: pay more, get less, put the insurance companies back in charge. This debate is not simply the political game Republicans want to make it. It is about our health and our lives.

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.

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog.

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Photo: Michael Jolley via Flickr

Looking To 2014: The Emerging Movement For The Next New Deal

The rise of new progressive organizing is cause to believe that economic reform and a shift toward broadly shared prosperity are within reach.

Thomas Edsall, who now is capping off his long career writing insightfully about the relationship between economics and public opinion as a blogger for The New York Times, concluded a piece in late December by saying, “Progressives are now dependent on the fragile possibility that inequality and socioeconomic immobility will push the social order to the breaking point and force the political system to respond.”

Edsall’s bleak prognosis raises the biggest question facing not only progressives, but the future of our democracy: Is the political system in the United States capable of responding to the escalating crisis of stagnant wages, shrinking benefits, dissolving economic opportunity, and disappearing hopes of living anything that resembles the American Dream?

It is a question I ask myself every day. But I reach a different conclusion than Edsall, because for all his powers of observation, he misses the role that people play in changing history. I see a growing movement of Americans organized by progressives who are not waiting for the social order to break, but are instead forcing the political system to respond.

Edsall reaches his conclusion by way of two commentators, my colleague Mike Konczal at the Roosevelt Institute and Harvard economist Ben Friedman. Konczal’s analysis of the quandary is cogent, as he provided “a two part description of the liberal state” in a 2011 post:

#1 you would have the government maintaining full employment, empowering workers and giving them more bargaining power, and #2 you would have a safety net for those who fell through the cracks… I think it is safe to say that liberals have abandoned #1 and doubled-down on #2… Without a strong middle and working class you don’t have natural constituencies ready to fight and defend the implementation and maintenance of a safety net and public goods. The welfare state is one part, complementing full employment, of empowering people and balancing power in a financial capitalist society.

Friedman’s contribution is to point out, as Edsall summarizes, that “during hard times people become less altruistic and more inclined to see the poor as undeserving.” Friedman says that when people are squeezed economically, rather than identifying with those still worse off, they “enter a period of retreat and retrenchment.” That is certainly what we are seeing now, with the government cutting unemployment benefits, food stamps, and a much larger swath of the safety net in a shrinking budget.

On the other hand, Friedman says times of broadly-shared prosperity encourage “greater generosity toward those who, through some combination of natural circumstance, market forces and sheer luck, have been left behind.”

When we look at the big periods of progressive change in the 20th century through this lens, we can ask, are we more similar to the soaring post-World War II middle class that led to the Great Society, or to the wrecked economy that led to the New Deal? After the Great Recession, that’s a no-brainer.

So is Edsall then correct in concluding that the only way to get to the next New Deal is waiting for another disintegration of the economy like we saw after the Great Depression? Or is even that a misreading of New Deal history, in which decades of building a movement of working people laid the groundwork for the New Deal laws that established the right to organize unions, fair labor standards like a minimum wage, and social insurance programs like Social Security and unemployment compensation?

If we have to wait, we’re in big trouble, because as we saw in 2008, we are much less likely to see another collapse like the Great Depression thanks to the progressive accomplishments of the 20th century. The aggressive use of the Federal Reserve and banking regulations prevented a total collapse of the financial system. The safety net – food stamps, Medicaid, etc. – and the social insurance programs of unemployment insurance, Social Security, and Medicare prevented widespread destitution. These measures allowed us to have a Great Recession rather than a second Great Depression.

But the Great Recession also deepened the three-decade-long trend of families seeing their incomes and lifestyles squeezed by stagnant wages, eroding benefits, and the rising costs of gateways to opportunity. As a result, we are seeing an escalation of the path to the next New Deal: organizing people to demand that we create a 21st century economy of broadly-shared opportunity and prosperity.

The past year saw the explosion of organized fast-food workers, from a handful of community-supported walkouts demanding higher wages a year ago to actions involving thousands of workers and supporters in some 130 cities in December. The growing movement earned national as well as local news coverage.

Less visible, but deeper, is the emergence of new forms of worker organizing, taking place largely outside of traditional unions and the national labor law, known generally as the workers’ center movement. Domestic workers, through the National Domestic Workers Union, have won passage of laws giving them new labor protections in California and New York. Tomato pickers in Florida, under the banner of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, have won higher wages by building consumer pressure against the supermarkets and restaurant chains that buy the crops they pick. Immigrant and low-wage workers around the country, at workers’ centers that are part of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, have resisted wage theft and won basic protections in day labor and construction. The examples go on and are analogous to the emergence of the labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The long-simmering pressure for raising the minimum wage is now becoming a national political force, with Democrats embracing the issue. The passage of a $15 minimum wage in Sea-Tac, outside of Seattle, will be a harbinger of more local actions to define a minimum wage in ways that make sense for people’s lives, not some political calculation about what’s possible.

In New York City, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s reluctance to support paid sick days, siding with the business community, destroyed her support among the progressive base in the city’s recent mayoral race, paving the way for the election of Bill de Blasio, who rose both on his progressive platform and as the result of a decades-long base-building project in the city. These contests will continue to escalate, as we’ve seen in Philadelphia, where a Democratic mayor has twice vetoed a paid sick-day ordinance approved by the City Council. As they do, Democrats who take the Quinn route will find themselves on the sidelines with her.

Cultural and demographic trends are encouraging, too. While the progressive politics of the growing numbers of the young, single women, and Latinos have garnered notice, another hopeful trend is that among non-college-educated whites, one of the most conservative groups in the country, the young are much more progressive than their older counterparts. Pope Francis has become an instant hero not just by easing back on his church’s focus on sex, but by directly challenging trickle-down economics.

In all this, history will look at President Obama as a transitional figure. He has pledged to make income inequality the defining issue of the day, but he still chooses a low-wage Amazon warehouse as a venue to address the issue. He still seeks to reconcile the destruction of the middle class with the rise of Wall Street.

Wall Street and K Street and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, all greasing the system while stoking resentment of “the takers” and people of color, in a nation with a deep “it’s up to me and my family alone” streak, remain huge obstacles to building an America that works for all. The change we are making will take time.

What gives me hope is that, for all its flaws, we still live in a nation where popular will can make change. And we have a history of creating change from below and then electing leaders who, like FDR, drilled into the deep well of hope that has given life to the best of America, from the Revolution, through the Civil War, the Progressive era, the New Deal, the civil rights movement, and the Great Society.

Earlier this week, on the last day of 2013, I called up Mike Konczal and asked him to reflect on Edsall’s dark conclusion. Here’s what he told me: “I’m more optimistic than I was when I wrote that piece two years ago. People are agitating, building new infrastructure. Issues like the minimum wage are gaining prominence. We’re seeing mobilizing among non-traditional workers like daycare workers.”

It is up to us to make history. Let’s get to work in 2014.

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.

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

AFP Photo/Jewel Samad

Farewell To <i>Health Care For America Now</i>

The campaign that won passage of health care reform is closing up shop, but its grassroots organizing efforts will stand as a model of success for progressives.

Health Care for America Now (HCAN), the grassroots campaign that powered passage of the Affordable Care Act, is about to close its doors, as planned when the campaign started. But the images it generated of Americans passionately fighting to make health care a right will remain with us for years to come. The new movie Inequality For All includes dramatic footage of an HCAN supporter standing up to a Tea Partier. Another documentary released last year, Escape Fire, has stirring footage of an HCAN rally. Pictures of people holding up HCAN signs or wearing HCAN buttons still appear regularly in news magazines.

It makes great sense that HCAN’s actions have become iconic symbols of the fight for health justice in the United States. From its beginning, the heart of the HCAN campaign was outside the Beltway, its strategy grounded in the firm conviction that we could only win the fight for comprehensive reform if we based our campaign on grassroots organizing outside of Washington. We knew that inside the Beltway, the best we could do is provide a credible voice countering the army of thousands of lobbyists for the health care industry. But outside the Beltway, by organizing ordinary Americans, we could win.

Creating a powerful grassroots force is not easy. It took building a campaign that pushed against the culture of D.C., with the support of a funder that was committed to building progressive capacity, not just winning on an issue. Most national issue campaigns are D.C.-centric, run by campaign operatives, constrained by a narrow band of legislative concerns, with an idea of field work that is narrowly focused on generating earned media and emails and phone calls to members of Congress. After a lot of debate, the union and community organizing leaders who built HCAN agreed to spend almost all of its non-paid media resources on field contracts with state-based community organizations and community labor coalitions. These local organizations partnered with the local chapters of national labor unions and netroots groups.

The national strategy and tactics were relentlessly focused on empowering people at the local level to bring their personal passion, and often their personal stories, to their communities and members of Congress. Their work did generate lots of local media and calls to Congress, but it went much deeper than that, building the kind of relationships that are transformational. The campaign’s major funder, the Atlantic Philanthropies, was fully committed to the strategy, believing that even if the legislative effort fell short, their funds would leave in place a more sophisticated and robust capacity for progressive change at the local level. But because Atlantic had faith in the grassroots strategy, both of the foundation’s objectives – passing historic legislation and building capacity – were realized.

While HCAN was always envisioned as a campaign that would end with the passage of legislation, HCAN’s leadership decided to launch HCAN 2.0 to defend the new law after its passage. With many fewer resources, HCAN continued the fight, working on consumer regulations to control insurance premiums, taking part in the public battle around the Supreme Court’s hearing on the ACA’s constitutionality, defending Medicare from privatization, pushing for Medicaid expansion, and always reminding us that the opponents of the ACA are eager to return Americans to the day when insurance companies were fully able to deny them care and jack up their premiums because, indeed, we do get sick.

HCAN is now closing up shop. It may seem a funny time, with the current fracas over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, but that is the point. The organization’s campaign mission was to win passage of a law, a mission extended to include “win and secure” the ACA. The debate over the shape of the ACA will continue for years to come – a struggle over how to fix, expand, roll back, or build upon the law. But as each of the millions of Americans who will enroll over the next few months sign up, another nail is hammered in the repeal coffin. Retiring HCAN, its mission accomplished, is another sign that the campaign is keeping its eyes on the prize.

HCAN affirmed my belief that people organizing together can shape history. Paul Starr, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of health policy, told me that none of the failed attempts to pass comprehensive health reform had a major, grassroots field component. Earlier this year another noted historian of health reform, Theda Skocpol, published an analysis in which she credited the success of health care reform versus the failure of climate change legislation to HCAN’s deep grassroots strategy, compared with an elite, inside strategy of environmentalists.

It is good to see those lessons being fully embraced by new leadership in the climate change movement, as seen most sharply in the Keystone pipeline fight. The campaign for immigration reform too is powered by a national, grassroots movement led by local leaders who are putting their lives on the line for change. The most energetic new labor organizing is built on helping low-wage workers take local actions, supported by their communities, as part of a growing national effort.

Still, too many issue campaigns and too many funders fail to fully grasp the respectful partnerships and movement-building essential to defeat corporate power and right-wing politics. If we are to make the kind of transformational changes America and the world need, the politics HCAN pioneered, a sharply strategic national campaign built on empowering people through organizations around the country, points the way.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Advisor 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.

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog.

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Photo: Progress Ohio via Flickr