A New Pope Brings New Hope For Ending Austerity

A New Pope Brings New Hope For Ending Austerity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted From The Roosevelt Institute’s Next New DealBlog

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

AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File

Sequestration: A Totally Avoidable Disaster That Was Bound To Happen

Sequestration: A Totally Avoidable Disaster That Was Bound To Happen

Republicans have issued so many absurd economic threats that one of them was eventually going to come true.

Fingers are pointing in every direction as politicians and pundits assign blame for the automatic spending cuts that are scheduled to kick in Friday night. But in truth, it was a real team effort. And something this stupid didn’t just happen overnight; it took a few years of hard work and dedication. These high-stakes games of chicken have become a fixture of American politics during the Obama presidency. In the past, one side or the other has always blinked at the last minute. But the latest iteration looks like it will end in a head-on collision, and while the resulting wreck will be grisly, it might provide the shock to the system we need to steer our political debate back on course.

In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama declared, “The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next.” The key word there is “manufactured.” Facing mass unemployment, widening inequality, rising health care costs, the threat of climate change, and instability in the Middle East, just to name a few concerns, one would think our lawmakers had more than enough legitimate problems to worry about. But congressional Republicans have proven themselves to be entrepreneurial problem-makers since the night of Obama’s first inauguration, when they gathered to plot his downfall.

From the beginning, the Republican strategy has been one of total opposition, but that backfired once they regained control of the House of Representatives and were actually expected to govern. As a result, writes E.J. Dionne, “The country has been put through a series of destructive showdowns over budget issues we once resolved through the normal give-and-take of negotiations.” The situation reached a boiling point in the summer of 2011, when Republicans threatened to let the federal government hit the debt ceiling. (No, not that time. The time before that.) Although there’s been a lot of back and forth about whether the White House deserves some or all of the blame for creating the sequester in the first place, it’s worth remembering that the debt ceiling debacle basically forced Obama’s hand. The result was the Budget Control Act, which established a bipartisan and famously useless “Super Committee” to hammer out a long-term deficit reduction plan. The Sword of Damocles hanging over the committee’s heads was sequestration, a mixture of automatic budget cuts designed to be so unpalatable to both parties that they would be forced to find an alternative solution – until they didn’t. Whoops.

Aiding and abetting Republicans throughout this misadventure were the deficit hawks, who grew tired of hearing about the economic crisis almost as soon as it began. They wanted to get back to more serious topics of discussion, like why the Obama administration was suddenly spending so much money. (Could it be… the economic crisis?) Twelve million people unemployed? Meh. One in five children living below the poverty line? Bo-ring. Debt-to-GDP ratio approaching 90 percent? Sweet Rogoff, it’s time to declare a state of emergency! This relentless elite-level concern trolling drove the political debate to the far right while supposedly giving voice to the moderate middle, enabling the GOP’s worst policy instincts.

Now that things are once again down to the wire, Congress is scrambling to find a last-minute fix, but this time it looks like they’ll come up short. A Republican proposal that would have given President Obama more discretion over how to implement the cuts failed after Obama rightly dismissed it as an attempt to keep all the cuts in place while shifting all the blame onto him. A Democratic proposal to replace the sequester with a more balanced package of cuts and revenue was dead on arrival. And no one seems willing or able to simply cancel the cuts and call the whole thing off. As Adam West once said, some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.

The consequences of sequestration will almost certainly be dire. In a survey of top economists conducted by The New Republic, most predicted that it would slow our already anemic economic growth, while even the most positive assessment cast it as some sort of punishment that America has had coming for a long time due to our failure to don the hair shirt of austerity along with our European allies. The indiscriminate cuts will take a heavy toll on the poor, women and children in general, domestic violence victims in particular, people who eat food… you get the picture. And the fact that this pain is being inflicted by fiat only makes the sting worse.

On the other hand, while sequestration was entirely unnecessary and unwise, something like this was bound to happen once Republicans chose to throw caution and responsibility to the wind. You can win a game of Russian Roulette once, but you’re not likely to have a long reign as champion. Likewise, if you keep inventing fake crises to help you get your way, one of them is eventually going to become real. It’s tempting to hope that this is what it looks like when Congress hits bottom, although it seems to break through to previously unexplored depths each time. But if this is what it takes to wake more Americans up to how distorted our policy debate has become so that we can start rethinking our national priorities, the pain may just barely be worth it after all.

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

Cross-posted From The Roosevelt Institute’s Next New DealBlog

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

Photo: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

No Pay, No Problem: Why Congress Doesn’t Need Our Money

No Pay, No Problem: Why Congress Doesn’t Need Our Money

One reason Congress is so dysfunctional is that wealthy lawmakers are insulated from everyday concerns like getting paid.

This week, as part of a compromise to ward off a debt ceiling showdown and potential default, the House approved the No Budget, No Pay Act, which would withhold lawmakers’ paychecks starting April 15 unless they pass a budget. If you haven’t been keeping up with GOP talking points, this is the latest attempt to pressure Senate Democrats into producing a budget resolution, which they haven’t done in the last four years for various inane parliamentary reasons. But whatever you think of its intent, it’s an empty gesture and one that highlights the troubling disconnect between average Americans and their elected officials.

Despite its gimmicky origins, No Budget, No Pay has a certain intuitive appeal. As centrist commentator John Avlon writes, “If you don’t get the job done at work, you won’t get paid.” Sure, you or I would probably just get fired, but we don’t have gerrymandering to save us. Still, why should we reward Harry Reid and his crew for shirking their responsibilities while House Republicans have been keeping their noses to the grindstone and dutifully passing Paul Ryan’s Ayn Rand fan fiction?

For one thing, it’s unconstitutional. Not “unconstitutional” in the wingnut sense that cutting the crusts off your sandwich is unconstitutional if there’s a photo of Barack Obama doing it, but unconstitutional in the sense that the 27th Amendment specifically prohibits Congress from mucking around with its own pay unless there’s an intervening election. To get around this little detail, the act is designed so that the members’ checks get deposited into an escrow account until a) they pass a budget or b) the term ends in 2014, at which point they get paid in full either way. In other words, it’s less of a threat to their livelihood and more of an experiment in delayed gratification.

But a more significant problem is that most legislators probably couldn’t care less if their pay was withheld indefinitely. As of 2011, the average estimated wealth of members of Congress was $6.5 million in the House and $13.9 million in the Senate. And unlike many of their constituents, they haven’t exactly been struggling through lean times recently. While average American households saw their median net worth drop 39 percent from 2007 to 2010, lawmakers’ rose five percent during the same period. That’s not to say that every member of Congress is set for life; some are deep in debt like true red-blooded Americans. But threats to withhold pay are ineffective when most of our representatives have enough money in their rainy day funds to last them through monsoon season. And if worse comes to worst, they can always exit through the revolving door and join a few corporate boards to replenish their bank accounts.

This points to a larger problem with our political system, which is just how far removed our policymakers are from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans. In a 2005 study, Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels found that:

[S]enators appear to be considerably more responsive to the opinions of affluent constituents than to the opinions of middle-class constituents, while the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their senators’ roll call votes.

Read that again: if you’re a low-income voter, you and your policy preferences might as well not exist as far as your senators are concerned. While Bartels doesn’t provide a definitive explanation for these findings, he notes that “the fact that senators are themselves affluent, and in many cases extremely wealthy, hardly seems irrelevant.” Being rich frames the way our elected officials see the world, shapes their social circles, and determines their legislative priorities. In that sense, wealth is the incubator that hatches Washington’s deficit hawks.

Of course, wealth alone doesn’t determine a person’s politics. FDR was no pauper, but he fought for the common good and was labeled a class traitor for his efforts. But noblesse oblige isn’t what it used to be, and today’s well-heeled lawmakers seem more interested in scoring political points than addressing mass unemployment and soaring inequality. No Budget, No Pay won’t do anything to change that, and any consensus budget that it did produce would undoubtedly be laden with more unnecessary cuts to domestic spending and the social safety net. It’s a fair point that lawmakers shouldn’t get paid for a job they’re not doing, but they’re so insulated from reality that no amount of negative reinforcement short of voting them out of office is likely to have a significant impact. And until that happens, we don’t need more gimmicks to make them fall in line and pass an austerity budget. What we could use is a lot more traitors.

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

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

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

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

The Platinum Coin Is As Absurd As The Problem It Solves, And That’s A Good Thing

The Platinum Coin Is As Absurd As The Problem It Solves, And That’s A Good Thing

President Obama can beat Republicans in the debt celing standoff by turning their own tactics against them.

Not since Samuel L. Jackson announced his desire to have the snakes removed from his passenger flight has a single sentence thrilled the Internet as much as Chuck Todd’s question at yesterday’s White House press briefing: “Do you guys have a position on this trillion-dollar coin business?” At the same time, one could hear the collective groan of critics who hoped the whole coin idea would stay buried in online obscurity rather than become a topic of discussion for people with actual influence. It’s understandable that the silliness of the trillion-dollar coin rubs its opponents the wrong way, but it’s that very silliness that makes it the perfect response to the ridiculous state of American politics.

The precise origins of the trillion-dollar coin are a matter of debate (some credit blog commenter “beowulf” for the idea, while others trace its inspiration to nuclear energy magnate C. Montgomery Burns), but in the last week it’s become a preoccupation of the economic blogosphere. The particulars have been covered in exhaustive detail elsewhere (see The Atlantic’s Matthew O’Brien for a good overview), but the short version is this: due to a loophole in commemorative coin law, the Treasury Department technically has the power to mint a platinum coin with a face value of $1 trillion, deposit that coin in the Federal Reserve, and use the funds to pay its debts if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling in time to avoid default.

I don’t intend to get into the legal foundation for the platinum coin approach (though experts including Harvard professor Laurence Tribe and the co-author of the law believe it’s sound) or even to suggest that the president might actually go for it. No matter what garbled signals his press secretary sends, Barack Obama is a serious man who doesn’t like stunts. After spending more than four years cultivating an image as the only grownup in the room, he’s probably not going to step out into the Rose Garden, pull an oversized novelty coin from his pocket, and announce that he just ended the debt ceiling standoff before it started. But that’s too bad, because he totally should.

Non-legal arguments against the coin share a common theme: it’s stupid, and its supporters are sinking to the GOP’s level. Kevin Drum of Mother Joneswrites, “This whole thing is not just a ridiculous idea, it’s a bad idea too.” Ross Douthat at The New York Times argues that it would be “trying to match the Republicans irresponsibility for irresponsibility, in a constantly escalating game of ‘can you top this?’” Republicans, Drum notes, “seem willing to set the country on fire to please their increasingly fever-swampish base, and eventually they’ll pay a price for that at the polls,” so Democrats should just sit back and wait for them to self-destruct. One might have thought that happened in November, when they lost the presidential election, several Senate seats, and the popular vote in the House, but two months later, they’re still in control of the House and still threatening to trigger a global depression out of spite. How’s that working out?

Even supporters of the trillion-dollar coin admit that it’s all very silly, but that’s sort of the point. Republicans’ debt ceiling antics are utterly ridiculous; under the guise of curtailing future spending, they’re threatening to refuse to make good on debts the U.S. already owes because of spending Congress already authorized. They’re so concerned about the health of the U.S. economy that they claim they’re willing to destroy it. It may all be empty posturing, but it only gets them what they want if Obama agrees to play straight man to the clowns and accept a pie in his face for the good of the republic. And as we’ve seen time and again during the president’s first term, pretending that elected Republicans are grownups who take their responsibility to govern seriously doesn’t cause them to live up to expectations. Instead, it seems to embolden them to behave even more radically, since they know they can count on someone else to keep the country afloat while they’re busy running around with their pants on their heads.

So yes, President Obama could continue to act as if Republicans are negotiating in good faith and either allow them to extract more painful, unnecessary budget cuts or risk the possibility that they’ll reject his overtures and destroy the U.S.’s credit rating for no particular reason. Or he could flip the script so that the joke’s on them for once. As Jamelle Bouie writes, “The $1 trillion coin is a ridiculous idea. But it’s no less ridiculous than the debt ceiling, and in the big scheme of things, it’s far preferable to defaulting on our obligations.” Minting the coin wouldn’t lower the president to the GOP’s level; it would prevent the GOP from dragging the entire country down with it. If the U.S. had a functioning government and a healthy political debate, we wouldn’t be talking about the debt ceiling or the coin, but it doesn’t, so we are. Pretending that everything’s just fine on Capitol Hill won’t bring Mr. Smith back to Washington, but acknowledging and heightening the absurdity could hasten the exit of the current gang of malcontents and allow more reasonable and responsible leaders to take their place. So if you take policy seriously, it’s time to treat politics as farce.

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

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.

Image by Steve Thomas

GOP Adds Insult To Injury With Rejection Of Disabilities Treaty

GOP Adds Insult To Injury With Rejection Of Disabilities Treaty

Senate Republicans passed up an opportunity for the U.S. to lead, because of half-baked arguments and conspiracy theories.

You wake early in the morning to the sound of your doorbell ringing, followed by a heavy knock on the front door. Bolting up in bed, you hear the ominous whir of a helicopter’s blades circling above your house. You race to wake up your disabled children and tell them to stay close and take only what they can carry. But even as you make a break for the back door, a glimpse of shadowy figures through your curtained windows tells you it’s already too late. They have you surrounded. The United Nations Peacekeepers are here to take your kids to school.

This scenario is not too far removed from the nightmare future some Republicans claimed would unfold if the Senate had ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities earlier this week. That’s why, despite strong bipartisan support, the treaty failed in a 61-38 vote on Tuesday, five votes short of the required two-thirds majority. Another day, another missed opportunity in America’s most dysfunctional deliberative body. But this particular case of mindless obstructionism is both a bad omen for the possibility of progress in President Obama’s second term and a real blow to children and adults throughout the world whose physical and mental disabilities continue to pose serious economic and social challenges.

The convention, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2006 and since ratified by 126 countries, aims to “promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.” In addition to outlining basic principles for fair and equitable treatment of the disabled, it established a committee of human rights experts tasked with monitoring progress and issuing non-binding recommendations pursuant to those goals.

Pretty scary stuff, right? Well, yes, according to people like Rick Santorum, one of the treaty’s most vocal critics. Writing at Glenn Beck’s online news hub, The Blaze (where I go for all my sober analysis of international human rights law), Santorum warned that ratifying the treaty could “potentially eradicate parental rights for the education of children with disabilities” and “allow our beliefs and values to be outsourced to outside entities that may not always have our best interests in mind.” Somehow, a measure meant to promote equal opportunity and increased accessibility was twisted into a law that would allow a shadowy council of bureaucrats in Geneva to authorize forced abortions and ban home-schooling for students with special needs.

After Republicans blocked the treaty, Santorum took a victory lap at The Daily Beast, writing that he opposes the treaty:

because our nation has been the worldwide leader when it comes to protecting the disabled. We should be telling the U.N., not the other way around, how to ensure dignity and respect for the disabled.

… However, the United States passing this treaty would do nothing to force any foreign government to change their laws or to spend resources on the disabled. That is for those governments to decide.

So if I’m reading Santorum correctly, he’s claiming that the treaty would allow the UN to dictate U.S. law, but not other countries because they write their own laws, but U.S. law is already stronger than anything the UN could ask for anyway, so the U.S. should be telling other countries what laws to write. In other words, he opposes it because Barack Obama signed it.

Anyone hoping that President Obama would have an easier time pushing a progressive agenda through Congress in his second term should be concerned that incoherent arguments like this managed to persuade 38 Republican senators to oppose the treaty. Of the eight Republicans who crossed party lines to support it, three will not be returning to office in January. This was a treaty originally negotiated by George W. Bush and endorsed by John McCain and Bob Dole, not some hippy business about stimulus spending or climate change. While the constitutional two-thirds requirement created an extra hurdle to clear, it’s telling that even this benign measure couldn’t escape the legislative graveyard that is the U.S. Senate. Harry Reid’s proposed changes to filibuster rules can’t come soon enough, but in cases like this, there’s no substitute for a minority party that actually wants to help govern rather than obstruct.

And despite opponents’ claims to the contrary, America’s failure to ratify the treaty is in some sense a symbolic rebuke to people with disabilities and an abdication of its role as a world leader. Santorum is right to point out that the U.S. has historically led on this issue. As many news reports have pointed out, the Americans with Disabilities Act, which passed in 1990 with broad bipartisan support, actually served as the inspiration for the UN convention. That just makes it sadder that failure to ratify the treaty now puts the U.S. behind the curve compared to Burkina Faso.

With or without our help, there’s plenty of work to be done. The UN’s fact sheet notes that there are roughly 650 million people living with disabilities throughout the world, facing unemployment rates as high as 80 percent and literacy rates as low as 1 percent. At the same time, the U.S. is in danger of undermining its own progress in this area by slashing programs like Medicaid, which delivers benefits to 8 million people with disabilities. Rejection of this treaty is just the latest sign that helping the disadvantaged, whether they’re born with physical impairments or born into poverty, is not a priority for Republicans in Congress.

In his Four Freedoms address, FDR declared, “Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose.” This conception of freedoms entails responsibility to the global community rather than isolation from it. Having our legislation held up as the international model for the rights of the disabled should be a source of national pride, not more partisan paranoia. Like the fringe theories about Agenda 21, discomfort with this convention seems to have less to do with the failings of the UN than with the right’s fears that its own agenda will be judged by the world and found wanting.

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

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Dealblog

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

Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.com

The GOP’s Holiday Gift Guide: Pain for the Poor, Ponies for the Rich

The GOP’s Holiday Gift Guide: Pain for the Poor, Ponies for the Rich

Republicans are using the fiscal cliff to extract payback for all the “gifts” President Obama has given to Americans.

Before Americans have even finished digesting their Thanksgiving turkey, the holiday shopping season will have officially begun. But according to Mitt Romney, Christmas came early for those who voted for Barack Obama. The failed Republican presidential nominee and latter-day Scrooge told donors last week that President Obama had won re-election by “giving targeted groups a big gift.” And what generous stocking-stuffers they were! For the young and the poor, health coverage under the Affordable Care Act. For Hispanics, an executive order halting deportation of the children of undocumented immigrants. For women, free contraception for use in all their filthy lady activities. If Malia and Sasha don’t find a pair of baby unicorns under the White House Christmas tree this year, they have a right to feel jealous.

Romney’s comments met with disapproval from fellow Republicans who hope to have a future in elective office, but the truth is that they reflect an understanding of the American public and its relationship with government that is widely shared among conservatives. Paul Waldman argues that it fits right in with their “makers vs. takers” ideology, the notion that the country is divided between “the brave individualists needing nothing from anyone, and the blood-sucking parasites who rely on government.” But Republicans don’t just want to reset policy to some sort of neutral state where everyone gives and receives his or her fair share (slow down there, Karl Marx). Instead, they seem to view the fiscal cliff as an opportunity to impose austerity measures that would redistribute the gifts to their Nice List and punish those who have been spoiled by Obama’s Socialist Santa.

The fiscal cliff is in fact better described as an “austerity bomb,” a term coined by Talking Points Memo’s Brian Beutler and echoed by Paul Krugman. Despite what the cliff terminology might suggest, the problem isn’t that the federal deficit is about to explode, but that conservatives who have spent years demanding swift and substantial deficit reduction are about to get exactly what they wanted. If this mix of scheduled tax increases and spending cuts is allowed to take effect, it will carve $560 billion out of the budget next year—so why are deficit scolds suddenly terrified of the consequences? Krugman argues that they’re implicitly conceding that “Keynesians were right all along, that slashing spending and raising taxes on ordinary workers is destructive in a depressed economy, and that we should actually be doing the opposite.”

But are Republicans really worried about the plight of the working man? You wouldn’t know it based on the alternatives they’ve proposed, which involve swapping one set of austerity measures for a slightly different set of austerity measures. Their real concern is what the fiscal cliff will mean for their friends and supporters, not what it will mean for the broader economy. Sure, the poor will take the hit first, as is their lot in life, but taxes will go up on rich people, too! That’s money coming straight out of the 2014 campaign coffers. And what about those poor defense contractors who will suffer from cuts to the Pentagon’s budget? They have mouths to feed, too.

The terms that Republicans have set for the fiscal cliff negotiations provide clear evidence of this favoritism. Chastened by President Obama’s re-election, they keep claiming they’re open to compromise, but they steadfastly refuse to raise tax rates on the rich. Instead, they insist any new revenue must come from “closing loopholes,” a hoary Beltway cliché that means nothing in particular, and they’ll only concede that much if Democrats agree to “reform entitlements,” which is even less specific but more ominous. Oh, and they also want “changes” to the Affordable Care Act to be on the table. In fact, if Barack Obama would just go ahead and resign from office, it would be a real show of good faith and bipartisan spirit.

Proposing to cut Social Security benefits or raise the retirement age as part of a fiscal cliff deal is a non sequitur at best. With all due respect to financial masterminds like Lloyd Blankfein, it’s hard to believe that anyone could be told that Congress is about to pull the rug out from under the fragile recovery and honestly conclude that the solution is to make old people work longer. It’s the equivalent of the president being told that we’re on the verge of nuclear war and replying, “I’ll have the soup.” As Jeff Madrick has explained at length, Social Security is not in crisis, and there are plenty of easy fixes available for its future financial shortfall. (Medicare is a thornier problem, but one that probably shouldn’t be dealt with on a timer.) Senator Mark Begich, for instance, has proposed to cover the gap and pay for more generous benefits by eliminating the payroll tax cap. But don’t expect that plan to be taken very seriously by the Very Serious People, because it asks the rich to sacrifice more instead of inflicting some character-building pain on everyone else.

Aside from being unnecessary, such cuts would have a disproportionate impact on the poor. The right’s claim that Social Security wasn’t designed to handle increased life expectancies is based on a serious misunderstanding of history and human biology, but it is true that life expectancy has risen dramatically—for the rich. Workers on the lower rungs of the economic ladder haven’t been so lucky, so a higher retirement age is just a massive benefit cut for them. Of course, any such changes would only be phased in for younger workers, who (purely coincidentally) don’t vote Republican, not current retirees who do. That will teach those spoiled little punks. Er, I mean, preserve the promise of Social Security for future generations.

The same logic, if you can call it that, applies to demanding changes to the Affordable Care Act. The current law will save $109 billion over the next 10 years, so in theory, the deficit hawks should love it, right? Well, there are two problems with that theory. The first is that those cost savings are based on CBO projections, which, like Nate Silver’s electoral analysis, fall into that category of “liberal math” that Republicans find inherently suspect. The other is that the ACA achieves those savings while helping poor people — that’s what makes it a gift, according to Romney. But deficit reduction isn’t supposed to make life easier; it’s supposed to be tough love that forces people to fend for themselves in a harsh and unforgiving world. Like exercise, the pain means it’s working. Or maybe you just tore a tendon. You should probably check with your doctor, assuming you can afford health insurance.

This barely concealed impulse to punish the undeserving is the source of Republicans’ internal conflict over the fiscal cliff and the biggest hurdle they must overcome in their efforts to become viable contenders for the White House again. They may not see it as punishment; to them, it’s just a teaspoon of unpleasant medicine that will eventually make the country much healthier. But things like government-funded health care, education, and retirement security only look like gifts from the perspective of the man who has everything. What Republicans see as unaffordable luxuries, the rest of us see as essential to a basic standard of living. Until they realize that, we might be able to reach a compromise on the fiscal cliff, but we’ll never really find common ground.

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

Photo credit: asenat29 via Flickr.com

Paying Taxes To Your Boss: Another Step Toward 21st Century Feudalism

Employers are already treating their workers like their subjects. Now some of them get to collect taxes, too.

Though a lot of Americans really (really, really) hate paying taxes, most of us can at least justify it as our contribution to some greater good, whether it’s the broad range of social programs favored by progressives or a libertarian night watchman state. But what if the government instead told us, “We don’t want your money, but we would like to make friends with some rich guys, so just give it to them and let them have fun with it”? That could soon be the law of the land in Pennsylvania, where the state legislature has passed a bill that would, asPhiladelphia City Paper blogger Daniel Denvir describes it, “allow companies that hire at least 250 new workers in the state to keep 95 percent of the workers’ withheld income tax.” These workers will essentially be paying their employers for the privilege of having a job. Some have called this “corporate socialism,” but it also calls to mind an even older economic model that was once popular in Europe—except back then, the bosses were called lords. It’s a more modern innovation in the U.S., but combined with increased political pressure from employers and a crackdown on workers’ rights, it all adds up to feudalism, American-style.

The Pennsylvania bill is just the most recent example of state income taxes being turned into employer subsidies. It’s already the law of the land in one form or another in 19 states, and according to Good Jobs First, it’s taking $684 million a year out of the public coffers. The theory is that this will boost job creation. But the authors of the Good Jobs First report note, “payments often go to firms that simply move existing jobs from one state to another, or to ones that threaten to move unless they get paid to stay put.” In other words, it’s more like extortion than stimulus. With state governments facing a projected $4 trillion budget shortfall and continuing to cut social services and public sector jobs, they can hardly afford to be wasting money on companies that already have plenty and have no intention of putting it to good use. And the more governments turn over their privileges to businesses, the more the distinction between the two becomes blurred.

But if corporations have state governments over a barrel, they have their employees stuffed inside the barrel and ready to plunge down the waterfall. As I’ve noted before, some conservatives view all taxation as theft, but there’s surely no better term for what happens when employers promise their workers a certain wage or salary and then pocket some of the money for themselves. When you pay taxes to the government, you get something in return, whether it’s a school for your kids or a road to drive on or a firefighter to rescue you from a burning building. When you pay taxes to your boss, you… well, you give your boss your money. Your only reward is that you get to continue to “work the land,” so to speak. The lords didn’t consult with the peasants on which tapestries they should buy with the money they collected from them.

Did I forget to mention that these employers aren’t even required to tell their workers that this is how their “income taxes” are being used? Journalist David Cay Johnston, who covers this issue in his new bookThe Fine Print: How Big Companies Use ‘Plain English’ to Rob You Blindwrites that this bait-and-switch is “stealthy by design.” Of course it is; if these workers were important enough to know where their money is going, it wouldn’t be legal to steal it.

Employers may be able to exert pressure, but they can’t actually control who you support, right? Well, they might not be able to accompany you to the voting booth (yet), but if you work in a state that allows your employer to confiscate your tax withholdings and donate them to a pro-Romney Super PAC, they can turn you into a Romney supporter whether you like it or not. It’s not enough that our current campaign finance system gives wealthy executives nearly unchecked power to support the candidate of their choice; subsidizing them with income taxes allows them to choose for everyone in their fiefdom.

If employers were always secretive about their exploitation, the comparison to feudalism might not seem apt—after all, serfs were pretty clear on what the score was. But there’s nothing subtle about the way some employers have begun to apply political pressure in the workplace. From forcing workers to attend Romney rallies without pay to outright threatening their jobs if President Obama is re-elected, employers in the post-Citizens United era are feeling emboldened to conscript their employees as bannermen for the candidates of their choice. Suddenly, a job is not just a job, but an oath of allegiance. And Republicans, at least, are all for it. Mike Elk reports that Mitt Romney himself urged business owners to lobby their employees on his behalf, assuring them that there is “nothing illegal about you talking to your employees about what you believe is best for the business.” And as we all know, if you can’t technically be arrested or fined for doing something, that means it’s totally okay to do it. Q.E.D., coal miners.

This lopsided power dynamic is reflected more generally in the shoddy state of modern labor law. In most states employers can fire their workers whenever they want for pretty much any reason, forcing them to fall in line with even the pettiest demands. When your boss is trying to tell you when you can and can’t go to the bathroom, forcing you to hide your Obama bumper sticker seems like an almost trifling concern in comparison. This lack of employee agency has led Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren to describe today’s employers as “mini-dictators,” and as more public funds are diverted to private business owners, that comparison is only becoming more literal.

If conservative policymakers succeed in their nationwide effort to eliminate collective bargaining rights and neutralize already weakened unions, conditions aren’t likely to get better for workers anytime soon. Business owners and corporate execs will continue to assert more and more authority, bending their workers’ will to their own while using those workers’ paychecks to solidify their power. But there’s still hope of turning things around and restoring a more balanced playing field. If more American workers take note of the fact that two of their least favorite people, the tax collector and their boss, are being combined into one entity, it might just spark enough anger for them to fight back. As the feudal lords eventually learned, the peasants were the ones holding the pitchforks.

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

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.

Still No Straight Answers On Social Security

Still No Straight Answers On Social Security

After two debates, progressives are left with more questions than answers about the fate of one of our most important social programs.

It’s been a few decades since then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill first referred to Social Security as “the third rail of American politics,” but judging from the way the candidates in this election have avoided the subject, it still has plenty of juice left. There was a brief dustup last fall when Rick Perry claimed the program was a Ponzi scheme, but his subsequent flameout in the Republican primaries was so spectacular that the details were quickly forgotten. Since then, most of the focus has understandably been on Paul Ryan’s plan to turn Medicare’s guaranteed benefit into a voucher that grandma and grandpa can add to their coupon clippings. If we’re really lucky, sometimes we even get to debate the wisdom of dismantling Medicaid. But in the last two debates, the candidates have made statements about Social Security that raised more questions than they answered and suggested that the program’s future may be in doubt regardless of the election’s outcome.

Aside from the fact that President Obama seemed to have downed an entire bottle of Nyquil before his first debate with Mitt Romney, one of progressives’ biggest gripes about his performance concerned his decision to take Social Security off the table. “You know, I suspect that, on Social Security, we’ve got a somewhat similar position. Social Security is structurally sound,” Obama said last Wednesday, adding that “It’s going to have to be tweaked” but “the basic structure is sound.” That raises two questions: First, do they actually agree, or was Obama overcome by the spirit of compromise that sometimes compels him to give his opponents the benefit of the doubt when they’ve done nothing to earn it? Second, and perhaps even more importantly, exactly what sort of “tweaks” would the candidates support?

Sadly, we didn’t learn the answers to either of these questions, since moderator Jim Lehrer is allergic to follow-ups, but commentators on the left have hazarded a few guesses, and most of them aren’t very optimistic. Writing at The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner makes one of the stronger cases for why we should worry about Obama’s commitment to preserving Social Security benefits. He notes that Romney has pledged no changes to Social Security for those in or near retirement, which carries the unsubtle implication that everyone else is probably screwed. But Kuttner argues that instead of going on the attack, the Bowles-curious Obama “is softening up public opinion to accept very similar cuts” and “giving away what should be one of the clearest differences with Romney.” Dean Baker concurs that “tweak is a code word used by people who want to cut Social Security but lack the courage to say it explicitly.”

While it might be safer to assume the worst, it would be more charitable to read Obama’s comments as an acknowledgment that there are policy tweaks that would genuinely strengthen Social Security. Jeff Madrick provides a good overview of some ways we could extend the program’s solvency without reducing benefits or raising the retirement age. He also notes that Social Security is in no real danger and that fixing its finances is a fairly easy task, even though it’s often lumped in with Medicare and Medicaid as part of an all-encompassing “entitlement crisis.” But raising the cap on payroll taxes doesn’t seem to be the type of tweaking Romney has in mind, and even with no changes the program is projected to pay out full benefits for another 21 years. So why wouldn’t Obama choose to heighten the contrasts instead of conceding the argument before it’s begun?

That question only became more urgent at last night’s vice presidential debate, as Paul Ryan defended his support for privatization. Responding to moderator Martha Raddatz’s comment that “Medicare and Social Security are going broke” (they’re not), Ryan agreed that “these are indisputable facts” (see above) and argued that “if you reform these programs for my generation, people 54 and below, you can guarantee they don’t change for people in or near retirement.” Well, that’s great for them, but what does it mean for the rest of us who were sort of planning on growing old one day?

Ryan, who once derided Social Security as a “collectivist system,” is the author of a failed plan that would have transferred some Social Security funds into private investment accounts (more on that in this great piece by Mike Konczal and Bryce Covert). Last night, Ryan again claimed that privatization would “let younger Americans have a voluntary choice of making their money work faster for them,” whatever that means. It’s certainly true that if his plan had come to fruition after he originally proposed it in 2004, their money would have disappeared a lot faster during the financial crisis. Luckily, that proposal became so toxic when President Bush tried to pass it that his own party wouldn’t allow it to come to a vote. That’s probably why Ryan took care to point out that Mitt Romney doesn’t support such a plan. Instead, Romney wants to “slowly raise the retirement age over time,” an extremely regressive policy that would disproportionately hurt the poor people who most depend on Social Security. What a relief.

Biden offered a much stronger contrast on Social Security than Obama did, but he still left some questions unresolved. He stated clearly and firmly that the Obama administration would not privatize Social Security, which is the least we can expect from a Democrat given that the public version is one of his party’s greatest legislative achievements. He also argued that “to cut the benefits for people without taking other action you could do to make it work is absolutely the wrong way,” which is more reassuring but still leaves the administration some wiggle room to accept cuts as part of a Grand Bargain. It’s certainly a weaker promise than the one he made in August, when he told supporters, “I guarantee you, flat guarantee you, there will be no changes in Social Security” if President Obama is re-elected. Thanks, Mr. Vice President, but is there any chance we can get that in writing?

If Social Security wasn’t so essential—if it didn’t lift millions of elderly people out of poverty, offer peace of mind to all Americans in their retirement, or provide critical survivor benefits that Ryan acknowledges his own family received—it might be easier for progressives to accept this kind of hedging as part of the vagaries of messaging in an election year. But Social Security really is that important, and it has powerful allies arrayed against it in Washington who make little secret of their desire to take an axe to the program. It deserves to have an equally powerful and committed advocate defending it in the White House. It’s clear that Mitt Romney won’t fill that role, especially after he chose the architect of privatization as his running mate and heir apparent. Barack Obama still could, but progressives will have to convince him that there’s no room for ambiguity.

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

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 credit: AP/Charlie Niebergall


Republicans Are Pro-Choice (On Paying Taxes)

Republicans Are Pro-Choice (On Paying Taxes)

Instead of establishing a fair baseline for rich taxpayers, House Republicans want to let the rich chip in whatever they want.

Last October, President Obama introduced the so-called “Buffett Rule,” a tax provision that would require multimillionaires to pay a minimum 30 percent effective tax rate. It was named for the Oracle of Omaha himself, Warren Buffett, who famously complained about paying a lower tax rate than his own secretary. The idea garnered a great deal of public support, with one CNN poll from April 2012 finding as many as 76 percent of Americans in favor. Last week, bowing to popular demand, House Republicans passed the Buffett Rule Act of 2012, which naturally has nothing to do with any of that. Instead of establishing a baseline of fairness, it encapsulates the conservative notion that wealthy Americans shouldn’t be asked to contribute any more to society than they’re willing to volunteer.

The Republicans’ version of the Buffett Rule, which is not actually a “rule” in the sense that you or I or Webster’s Dictionary might understand the word, would allow taxpayers to check a box on their tax forms if they want to contribute more than they owe in order to help pay down the deficit. But, you may ask, can’t taxpayers already choose to pay more than they owe? Why yes, they’re free to send a check to the Treasury Department. So what does this bill actually do? Well, it would add a box they can check to send it to the IRS instead! The Joint Committee on Taxation projects that this bold innovation would help raise $122 million in additional revenue over the next 10 years. That’s slightly less than the $47 billion that Barack Obama’s version of the Buffett Rule would raise, but combined with more tax cuts for the rich and corporations, it puts the hard-nosed deficit hawks in the GOP on track to balance the budget some time around the heat death of the universe.

There’s a fundamental ideological divide between progressives and the modern conservative movement, and it concerns how much they buy into the concept of the social contract. That divide is reflected in the GOP’s fallback response to President Obama’s Buffett Rule proposal: “If Warren Buffett thinks he doesn’t pay enough taxes, why doesn’t he just volunteer to pay more?” Mike Konczal effectively dismantles this pseudo-logic here, and on a rhetorical level, it’s on par with “If you love the government so much, why don’t you marry it?” On the other hand, it makes a certain amount of sense if you think of society as something we can choose to opt out of once it’s outlived its use to us instead of an ongoing support system that we’ve all bought into. If you see the rich as the people who have benefited the most from our tax-funded social structure, it only seems fair to ask them to give back more in tough times. But if you think the rich are noble martyrs who are doing the rest of us a favor by choosing not to “go Galt” and withdraw from society, it’s clearly unjust to ask any more of them unless they volunteer it out of the goodness of their hearts.

Unfortunately, the GOP approach presents an obvious collective action problem, which is why it’s expected to raise so much less money than Obama’s mandatory minimum rate. The reason we have a tax code in the first place is that we determined it was impossible to fund the essential functions of government by having the president busk for tips. We don’t set the federal budget by passing a basket around and adding up the loose change we’ve collected. Congress establishes tax rates, we pay our taxes, and in exchange we get schools, roads, police, firefighters, health care, clean air, safe food, and so on. That’s how it works – except for the wealthiest Americans. With Republicans’ help, they have a few extra steps, like hiding their money in tax shelters, benefiting from all those government services anyway, and then complaining vociferously about how unfairly they’re treated.

Case in point: during last week’s Friday news dump, Mitt Romney released his 2011 tax returns, which showed that he had overpaid his taxes to avoid dropping below a 13 percent effective rate. At first blush this might seem like an example of the Republican Buffett Rule in action: look at this guy, giving until it hurts! Never mind the fact that he once said anyone who did that was some kind of moron who didn’t deserve to be president. But this was pure campaign strategy, not altruism. Having made $13.7 million last year, he paid only a 14.1 percent effective tax rate even after fixing the numbers. The problem is, he’d previously said he’d never paid less than a 13 percent rate in the last 10 years, and if he had taken all the deductions he was entitled to this year, he might have wound up paying as little as 9 percent. To put it another way, if Romney had taken full advantage of the breaks offered to him by the current tax code, he would have paid so little as to embarrass himself. And he’s not alone. According to the Congressional Research Service, one quarter of millionaires pay an effective tax rate of less than 26.5 percent, while 10 million middle-class Americans pay a higher rate.

As former Reagan administration official Bruce Bartlett has noted, the ineffectual nature of the GOP’s Buffett Rule is a feature, not a bug. He writes, “The political reality is that Republicans don’t really support taxation at any level. Of course, none will go on the record saying that they favor abolition of all taxation; they just support every single tax cut and oppose every single tax increase.”

In the extreme Ayn Rand-inspired worldview that Republicans like vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan have embraced, non-voluntary taxation is essentially theft. In reality, it’s the only way to provide vital public goods. As I wrote in the wake of the Aurora shootings, an equitable society depends on a strong and reliable social safety net, not the kindness of strangers. The same holds true for other government functions. If we want the services we’ve determined government can most effectively provide, and if Republicans are serious about wanting to rein in the budget deficit, we need to set rules that establish a steady stream of revenue, not hope that Bill Gates is in an especially good mood when he fills out his 1040.

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

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 credit: AP/Charles Dharapak

Social Security Does More Than Just Protect The Elderly

On the 77th anniversary of Social Security, we’re celebrating what has made the program so important and why it continues to be vital today. Tim Price writes that through survivors benefits, Social Security creates a widely shared safety net. Read the rest of our coverage here.

A growing number of pundits and policymakers talk about Social Security almost exclusively as a luxury for greedy seniors. But as I learned when my father passed away a week before my high school graduation, Social Security is much more than just a retirement fund (though that is an extremely important function and has rescued millions of seniors from poverty). Through its survivors benefits, it provides some guarantee of security to families of all ages and creates a safety net that many never expect to need.

As my colleague Mark Schmitt has noted, survivors benefits were established four years after the original Social Security Act was passed, but today they are an integral part of the program. As of December 2011, they accounted for 11 percent of total benefits paid, covering 6.3 million people with an average monthly benefit of $1,190. Of the beneficiaries, over 1.9 million are children, with aged spouses and parents of deceased workers accounting for another 4 million. A report from the Children’s Defense Fund notes that the value of survivors benefits for a typical family is equivalent to a $433,000 life insurance policy.

These benefits help families to pick up the pieces when tragedy strikes, allowing them to pay the rent, put food on the table, and afford other necessities despite losing a breadwinner. In this way, Social Security not only prevents financial catastrophe from compounding personal grief, but also gives workers the comfort of knowing that they will still be able to provide for their families after they’re gone. No one knows this better than newly minted vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, who saved up the benefits he received after his father’s death to pay his way through college so that he could one day run for Congress and draft a plan to dismantle Social Security.

Okay, maybe that’s not the best example. Instead, I’ll draw from personal experience. As noted above, my father passed away when I was only 17 years old. On the night I was supposed to be working on a second draft of my valedictorian speech, I instead sat with my mother in a waiting room in Richmond University Medical Center, waiting for a doctor to tell us what we both already knew. My father had suffered a massive heart attack at age 45; after years of poor health, it seemed both sudden and inevitable.

But after time of death was called and tears were shed, one of the hardest parts still remained. Delivering the news of a loved one’s death is always difficult, but it was especially painful knowing that one of the people we’d have to tell was my younger brother, Ryan. Ryan was 12 years old at the time, but due to his severe learning disabilities, he thought and behaved like a much younger boy. But to my surprise, even though he was understandably upset, his first instinct was to assure us that we would be okay because we’d stick together as a team.

Of course, it takes more than reassuring words to pay the bills, of which my father had left behind a considerable number. Though he’d retired as a sergeant from the NYPD several years prior to his death, the payment schedule that he chose for his pension meant that most of it disappeared with him. Then there were our expenses. Beyond basic utilities and a pile of credit card debt, my brother’s condition meant he needed special schooling and regular doctor’s appointments, and I was about to head off to a $40,000-a-year university. Luckily for us, we didn’t have to manage by ourselves. Despite the financial hole my father had dug in his latter days, his Social Security benefits allowed us to begin climbing back out.

Though I quickly aged out of my own survivors benefits, Ryan continues to receive them and relies on them heavily to this day. Now that he has turned 19 and left school, he will qualify for the Disabled Adult Child benefit along with 921,000 other men and women, many of whom have been diagnosed with similar intellectual disabilities that prevent them from finding gainful employment. As public health policy researcher Harold Pollack points out, the benefits are “hardly lavish,” but it’s comforting to know that if Ryan’s planned career as an international photographer doesn’t pan out (his goal is to one day photograph the Eiffel Tower), or if my mother and I are unable to provide for him ourselves, he can still fall back on the strongest safety net available.

One way or another, we will, as Ryan predicted, stick together as a team. But that team doesn’t just include the three of us. It encompasses all Americans, bound together by the Social Security system we’ve created, that we all share a responsibility to strengthen and defend, and that we may find ourselves relying on sooner than we think. Social Security isn’t just an “entitlement” designed to give us peace of mind in our old age, if we’re lucky enough to get there. When that luck doesn’t hold out, when the unthinkable comes to pass, it serves as a legacy and a promise to the loved ones we leave behind.

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

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.

Cognitive Deficit: How Budget Cuts Could Prevent Scientific Breakthroughs

Cognitive Deficit: How Budget Cuts Could Prevent Scientific Breakthroughs

America has been the world leader in scientific research for decades, but we risk falling behind if we don’t continue to fund groundbreaking projects.

The United States is the most religious country in the Western world, but it took a team of European heathens to prove the existence of God. On Wednesday, researchers in Geneva announced that they had discovered a new subatomic particle that they have not yet fully identified but they believe could be the Higgs boson, the so-called “God particle.” The Higgs boson is the manifestation of an invisible omnipresent force that is thought to be responsible for the existence of all physical mass in the universe. In layman’s terms, it’s the reason you’re a flesh and blood human being instead of a cloud of energy floating through space. So, you know, no big deal. But why is this groundbreaking discovery coming from Switzerland instead of the United States, which has long prided itself on being the world leader in scientific research (and pretty much everything else)? The answer, as it so often does, comes down to politics.

The Higgs boson was discovered through the use of a Large Hadron Collider, which is a 17-mile-long machine built to smash charged subatomic particles together so hard that they unlock the secrets of the universe. As you might imagine from the description, it comes with a hefty price tag: it cost the European Organization for Nuclear Research $10 billion to construct. As physicist Steven Weinberg points out in an essay flagged by Wonkblog’s Brad Plumer, American researchers were developing a similar particle accelerator in the 1980s until Congress cut their funding due to concerns about cost overruns. Plumer notes that “the United States could have had solid bragging rights for the Higgs, but Congress didn’t want to pay for a $10 billion particle accelerator after the Cold War ended.” Beating the Soviet Union to the moon was a national priority; beating Switzerland to God, not so much.

The Higgs boson isn’t just one missed opportunity – it represents how much the U.S. stands to lose if we don’t give our scientists the support they need. The Congress of the early ’90s might have pulled the plug on a $10 billion particle accelerator, but it’s hard to imagine today’s Congress even contemplating such a project when attempts to fund basics like unemployment insurance and infrastructure repair result in partisan gridlock. Paul Basken of The Chronicle of Higher Education points out that thanks to President Obama’s push for funding, “scientific research has enjoyed relatively strong support as Republicans have pressed for deep cuts in federal spending over all.” But as Fareed Zakaria notes, federal funding for research and development has fallen by over 50 percent as a percentage of GDP since the 1970s, and science agencies stand to lose 8 percent of their funding next year if the automatic cuts triggered by the Super Committee’s failure are implemented.

A lot of scientific research provides an easy target for deficit hawks, who start with the facile premise that the government should manage its finances like a household and conclude that we shouldn’t waste money on Junior’s weird science projects when a baking soda volcano will do. Senator John McCain is particularly fond of cracking jokes about obscure and esoteric research grants like “$700 million to study moth pheromone” or “three million to study the DNA of bears in Montana.”

But major scientific breakthroughs often come from unexpected and unglamorous directions. There might not be an Internet for you to read this post on if the Defense Department hadn’t explored new ways to transmit wartime communications in the 1970s. And as Annalee Newitz writes, “It’s tempting to offload the cost of science onto business, but there are some kinds of research that only government can make possible…The problem is that this kind of work could go nowhere. That makes it a bad business investment, though a necessary investment in our future.” A corporation might not be able to turn a profit from studying the building blocks of the universe, but that doesn’t mean it won’t enrich human knowledge and quality of life. When FDR famously said, “It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something,” he might as well have been describing the scientific method. Sometimes that means you work on the Manhattan Project; other times that means you study bear DNA.

For now, as Forbes’s Jon Bruner acknowledges, the U.S. retains its “complete dominance of basic scientific research,” winning at least one Nobel Prize every year since 1935, but cutting-edge projects like the Large Hadron Collider or even embryonic stem cell research are being pursued overseas. Perhaps more importantly, he notes, “Nobel Prizes typically recognize discoveries published between ten and thirty years earlier,” meaning today’s laureates are often the product of the education system that existed 40 to 60 years ago. But as Margaret Honey of the New York Hall of Science points out, “there has been an unprecedented and precipitous decline in science teaching and learning as a consequence of the focus and implementation of No Child Left Behind” that puts us at risk of “losing an entire generation to scientific illiteracy.” And as public schools and universities continue to suffer painful cuts and more teachers are laid off in the name of balancing budgets, the resources to train and foster America’s most promising young minds will become even scarcer.

In the last few years, the federal government has been all too willing to enable the financial sector’s gambling addiction, but our policymakers seem much more reluctant to gamble on research that could revolutionize our economy and the way we view the world around us. See, for example, the overhyped Solyndra “scandal,” in which the Obama administration was raked over the coals for giving a loan to a solar panel manufacturer that wound up going bankrupt because prices dropped. As serious businessmen like Mitt Romney know, making a failed investment means that you should immediately resign in disgrace and possibly turn yourself in to the police. But here in the real world, if America is going to be a world leader that does big things, we have to be willing to take the right kinds of risks. When it comes to finding something like the God particle, you’ve just got to have faith.

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

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.

Why Obama’s New Immigration Policy Is Good For The Economy

Why Obama’s New Immigration Policy Is Good For The Economy

Protecting undocumented workers doesn’t mean they’ll “steal” American jobs. Quite the opposite.

Last Friday, the Obama administration announced that it would halt the deportation of young undocumented immigrants who would qualify for the DREAM Act and grant them work permits. The usual suspects leaped into action with shouts of “amnesty!” and charges that President Obama was once again selling out his country to serve his cosmopolitan principles. One reporter from the right-wing Daily Caller was so irate that he started heckling Obama during the statement announcing the new policy, asking whether it was “good for the American people.” But this move will in fact benefit Americans, and anyone concerned about America’s workers and the health of its economy should be pushing the administration and Congress to go even farther.

In the ongoing battle between the 1 percent and the 99 percent, undocumented immigrants undoubtedly fall into the latter category. According to Pew research, 62 percent of undocumented workers are employed in construction, hospitality, manufacturing, or wholesale and retail trade, and “in specific occupations like cooking, painting, washing cars, packaging by hand and installation of carpets and floors, they may make up 20 percent or more” of the total workforce. Although the same study finds that many of these workers make at least minimum wage, the Urban Institute reports, “About two-thirds of undocumented workers earn less than twice the minimum wage, compared with only one-third of all workers.” Moreover, research from the Dallas Fed notes that although they are covered by minimum wage laws, “undocumented workers paid less than the minimum wage are probably unlikely to seek legal redress for fear of revealing their undocumented status.”

In short, these workers perform lousy jobs for lousy pay, with little bargaining power, limited legal recourse if they’re mistreated by their employers, and no safety net to catch them if they get sick or lose their jobs. Dirt cheap, easily exploited, and readily disposable, they represent the model American worker for elites who rail against organized labor, social programs, and business regulations.

Bringing undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and acknowledging them as full and active participants in the workforce is essential, not just to improve their own economic standing but to increase economic justice for all workers. Conservatives often cast this as an us-versus-them conflict, warning that undocumented workers are out to “steal” our jobs and that granting them legal status will only create more competition for low-income Americans. But they’re already here whether we choose to acknowledge them or not, and as Cristina Jimenez writes at The American Prospect (h/t Travis Waldron), “As long as a cheap, compliant pool of undocumented labor is available, employers have every reason to take advantage of the situation, keeping wages as low as possible.” No one’s out picking fruit under the hot California sun because of the great dental benefits; they’re doing what they need to get by, and their employers have them over a barrel. To put it another way, Terence O’Sullivan of the Laborers’ International Union of North America says, “Workers don’t depress wages. Unscrupulous employers do.”

The alternative to granting undocumented workers the legal protection they need to combat this exploitation is mass deportation, but rounding up and expelling 11 million people at a cost of $23,480 a head would be both inhumane and totally unaffordable. On the other hand, allowing them to stay and granting them legal status would actually help to reduce the deficit. According to a report from the National Council of La Raza, undocumented workers already contribute about $8.5 billion into Social Security and Medicare each year in addition to paying sales and property taxes. Far from being freeloaders, they pay $80,000 more in taxes per capita during their working lives than they take in from government services. But even if some of these workers were to achieve legal status through the DREAM Act and begin receiving the full benefits they deserve, the CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation estimate that factors including their newly reportable income and decreased Homeland Security costs would generate $1.7 billion in new revenue and reduce the deficit by $2.2 billion over the next 10 years. The question of “Which do I loathe more, deficits or immigrants?” may represent a real Sophie’s Choice for some on the right, but it’s clear that deficit hawkery is incompatible with opposition to immigration reform.

Even if you’re not one of those people who wakes up in a cold sweat thinking about the debt-to-GDP ratio, there’s reason to believe the American economy has holes these undocumented immigrants could fill. (Not literally, though they do that too.) As President Obama has emphasized, the U.S. is falling behind other developed countries in college completion rates, which could soon lead to a shortfall in high-skilled workers. Luckily for us, among the undocumented immigrant population there are millions of young men and women who grew up in America, identify as American, and want to go to college and pursue their careers here. We just need to stop giving them reasons to be afraid to do so.

The DREAM Act, if it were ever passed, would give undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before age 16 a path to citizenship if they meet certain criteria, including the completion of a college degree or military service. It’s been introduced several times in Congress (originally by Republican Orrin Hatch) but blocked by the GOP on the grounds that it would grant amnesty to those who entered the country illegally – an idea so radical only a bleeding heart liberal like Ronald Reagan could support it. President Obama’s new plan doesn’t even go that far. It will allow some undocumented immigrants to work here legally, but it provides no clear path to citizenship or the rights and privileges that come with it. They won’t be able to vote, for instance, although taxation without representation has been something of a sore spot in American history.

As the president himself admitted in his Rose Garden address on Friday, this new policy is only “a temporary stopgap measure” until Congress can pass a comprehensive immigration reform plan. And while the politics of setting the age limit for the policy at 30 are clear, since the “crime” of immigrating here as children is harder to hold against them, it’s cold comfort for the millions of older undocumented workers who need and deserve some relief. But it’s still an important step forward, and not just on the moral grounds that, as the president stated, “We are a better nation than one that expels innocent young kids.”

Instead of blaming undocumented workers for taking American jobs (and casually referring to them as “illegal aliens,” which criminalizes their existence and makes them sound like something that’s going to abduct and probe us in the middle of the night), we should recognize them as victims of the same exploitative system that Occupy protesters have been grappling with since last fall. Is giving legal recognition to undocumented workers good for the American people? It’s a step toward acknowledging that there’s no such thing as a second-class citizen and that all working men and women deserve fair compensation. What could be more American than that?

Tim Price is Deputy Editor of Next New Deal.

Cross-Posted From The Roosevelt Institute’sNext New DealBlog.

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

Keeping Them Honest: What Politicians Say Vs. What We Make Them Do

By dismissing politicians’ promises as meaningless, we let ourselves off the hook for making them take action.

Politicians are big, fat liars. It’s a belief so deeply ingrained in American culture that we’re taught to revere George Washington as the one-of-a-kind exception who narced himself out for chopping down a cherry tree, and even that story is completely made up. Like many things we believe, it’s not necessarily true that politicians produce lies the way plants produce oxygen. As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein has noted, presidents do basically try to fulfill their campaign promises, but they make more headlines by breaking them. And the 40-year-long effort to discredit government, which Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick has highlighted, has also probably contributed to the belief that our politicians are up to no good. But our constant and perhaps justified skepticism poses some big problems during a presidential election, which is at least partly about whose story of America we find more convincing.

But what if we focused on a different story? One of the most oft-cited incidents from FDR’s presidency is a policy meeting he held with labor leaders shortly after his election, which he concluded by telling them “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Did Roosevelt ever actually say those words? Who knows? Like Washington and his cherry tree, what matters is why we tell the story and what it says about how we view the man in question. FDR understood that regardless of what he personally believed, change had to happen from the bottom up, not just from the top down. He was a bold leader who was never afraid to take on a fight as long as he had the American people on his side. If we stop assuming that politicians will simply deliver progress without our involvement or that the process of policymaking is out of our hands once our votes are cast, then we might start to see elections in a very different light.

This question of trusting what politicians say is a tricky one for both of the major presidential candidates this year. As Mitt Romney makes his 97th pivot from the primaries to the general election, he may try to recant or alter positions he took to please the right-wing base that would send moderates screaming for the hills. A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed noted that “[a]ccording to a Romney adviser, his private view of immigration isn’t as anti-immigrant as he often sounded” during the primaries. This prompted Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne to ask, “Does [that] mean Romney said things that he doesn’t really believe? …How many other ‘private’ positions does Romney hold that we don’t know about?” Romney has been plagued by such accusations of insincerity throughout the campaign, with opponents referring to the presumptive Republican nominee as a “well-oiled weather vane” and piling on an ill-judged remark comparing him to an Etch-A-Sketch.

Likewise, President Obama has come under fire from the left for promising “change you can believe in” and delivering only a handful of heavily compromised victories. Some progressives are especially frustrated because they believe Obama secretly agrees with their policy prescriptions but lacks the courage or political support to advocate for them. One such issue is gay marriage, where Obama claims his views are “evolving” in favor of legality despite the fact that he openly supported it 16 years ago and conveniently devolved just in time to run for higher office. Others see it as naïve to think that Obama has done anything other than what he wants to do. Roosevelt Institute Fellow Matt Stoller wrote that by blaming the president’s failures on management rather than ideology, “all the media boosters and center-left validators of Obama in 2008 let themselves off the hook for mistakes. Instead, they ask, ‘where did our inspiring Obama go?’”

Stoller’s point about the president’s critics letting themselves off the hook hints at the real answer to whether candidates tell us what they honestly believe or what they think we want to hear: We can’t know unless we read their minds, so we have to take them at face value, exercise our own best judgment, and either keep pushing them forward if we agree or stop them in their tracks if we don’t. Sure, all else being equal, it makes sense that progressives and conservatives alike want a man or woman of principle representing them in the White House. And obviously we don’t want chief executives so dishonest that they risk leaving office in handcuffs. But by focusing all our attention on the failings of our leaders, we absolve ourselves of responsibility for shaping and implementing the policies we want to see. Sometimes we’ll find a dream candidate, although more often we’ll have to settle for the closest match and work to move them in the right direction. But either way we need to go in with our eyes wide open, not simply trust that they’ll one day emerge from their campaign cocoons to become the beautiful butterflies we want them to be.

Elections are not, or at least should not be, a “fire-and-forget” affair in which we vote for our favorites and send them off to govern while we cross our fingers and hope for the best. As New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said at the launch conference for the Rediscovering Government initiative, “great strides in social justice don’t come out because of politicians; they come out because of movements.” Even if Barack Obama’s views were far enough left to make Bernie Sanders look like a member of the John Birch Society, it would still be incumbent on progressives to keep the pressure on him and the members of Congress to make sure real change was made.

If we were to get over our learned helplessness and take charge of our political process, what would that look like? Ideally, as Roosevelt Institute Fellow Sabeel Rahman wrote recently, it would involve thinking of citizenship not simply as a chore we’re reminded of every two to four Novembers but as a kind of office with duties that extend far beyond the ballot box. It would also involve engaging in dialogue with people we do and don’t agree with and getting our message out as broadly as possible and through as many channels as we can, I say as I write this blog post.

Perhaps most importantly, it would involve good old-fashioned organizing. When Barack Obama implemented spending policies that conservatives didn’t like, they donned their finest colonial period costumes, took to the streets, and helped derail most of his domestic policy agenda. When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker gutted the rights of public workers, union members and activists rallied against him and gathered support for a recall election. And when Americans from all walks of life got fed up with our leaders ignoring the deepening divide between the haves and the have-nots, they sparked a worldwide movement that has put inequality front and center in our political debate. By taking on these and other big fights, ordinary Americans can prove that governing is what happens while politicians are making other plans.

None of this is easy. Faced with billionaire-funded Super PACs trying to bludgeon their ideological opponents into submission, political institutions so polarized and paralyzed as to be functionally useless, and an entrenched two-party system that often boils down to a choice between right and really far right, it’s very tempting to just give in to cynicism and retreat. But regardless of how much our leaders’ rich buddies chip in for their next campaign, dollars aren’t votes (at least until the Roberts Court says otherwise), and the nice part about being part of the 99% is that we outnumber them. By working together, we have the power to set the agenda and make sure our policymakers don’t keep their jobs unless they keep their promises. In other words, it’s on us to make them do it. This story might seem more implausible than the one where we’re all long-suffering martyrs who are constantly deceived and betrayed by cunning politicians, but it’s almost guaranteed to have a much better ending.

Tim Price is Deputy Editor of Next New Deal.

Cross-Posted From The Roosevelt Institute’s Next New DealBlog

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