Scandalfest continues. Official Washington is still flitting from one minor controversy to another, with the news media breathlessly reporting the latest leaked email or unsubstantiated accusation. Clearly, the chattering classes have declared the jobs crisis ended and the economic recovery complete.
While the Obama administration hasn’t popped open champagne bottles to celebrate, the air of silliness that hangs over the Beltway is a reminder that the worst is over. After all, the stock market is soaring. Consumer confidence is climbing.
The latest national unemployment number is down to 7.5 percent, the lowest level since December 2007, when the economy started its steep descent. Indeed, the sustained economic uptick may have a direct tie-in to Washington’s current obsession with less consequential matters: The economy is strong enough to have persuaded Republicans to stop blasting President Barack Obama over joblessness, so they’ve had to find other issues with which to batter him.
Here’s an update from outside the Beltway Bubble: The jobs crisis is not over. Average Americans are still struggling through an ugly economic transformation — a structural change decades in the making that jumped into overdrive with the Great Recession. Millions of Americans of working age remain unemployed, while others patch together two or three part-time jobs to keep food on the table. Still others have found full-time jobs but at far less pay than they used to earn.
A recent Quinnipiac poll provides a clear look into the minds of voters, who have little interest in the imbroglios of the moment. Rightly, 44 percent believe the revelations about the Internal Revenue Service, which singled out conservative organizations for unfair screening, as most important among the current controversies. Only 24 percent cited the deaths of four Americans at a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, despite the GOP’s obsession with it. Far fewer, just 14 percent, listed the Justice Department’s scrutiny of reporters.
But here’s the news you may have missed: An overwhelming 73 percent said that boosting the economy and creating jobs is more important than any of the other three issues. If politicians were as poll-obsessed as they are rumored to be, they’d at least pretend to be devoting most of their time to helping middle-class Americans get back into stable jobs with good pay.
The jobs crisis has been decades in the making, an economic restructuring fueled by globalization and technology. Think about it: Those Bangladeshi textile workers killed in an April building collapse were doing work once done in the United States. No matter how many affluent Americans protest the conditions and boycott the designers who contributed to the disaster, those jobs are not coming back to these shores. Manufacturers will continue to pursue cheap labor.
As a result, the jobs that once guaranteed good wages and stable futures to generations of Americans without college degrees have all but disappeared. That transformation, which started in the 1970s, has contributed to the wage gap, the ever-widening rift between the haves and have-nots. The average American worker has been losing economic ground for decades.
Politicians ignore that growing gap at their peril. The notion of an America where everybody has an equal shot has always been more myth than reality, but there was once a time when it was not so difficult for young adults to imagine a more prosperous future than their parents had. That is no longer a likely scenario.
That’s a very difficult problem to solve, which helps explain why politicians don’t like to discuss it. It calls for a multigenerational response, the sort of bipartisan approach that is usually reserved for battles against foreign enemies.
But Washington is stuck in a period of deepening polarization, incapable, it seems, of even agreeing on the causes of our economic woes. Democrats, at least, have a language for discussing widening income inequality. Republicans haven’t yet come to terms with its existence. So the sorry spectacle continues.
By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, June 6, 2013
Like many observers, I usually read reports about political goings-on with a sort of weary cynicism. Every once in a while, however, politicians do something so wrong, substantively and morally, that cynicism just won’t cut it; it’s time to get really angry instead. So it is with the ugly, destructive war against food stamps.
The food stamp program — which these days actually uses debit cards, and is officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — tries to provide modest but crucial aid to families in need. And the evidence is crystal clear both that the overwhelming majority of food stamp recipients really need the help, and that the program is highly successful at reducing “food insecurity,” in which families go hungry at least some of the time.
Food stamps have played an especially useful — indeed, almost heroic — role in recent years. In fact, they have done triple duty.
First, as millions of workers lost their jobs through no fault of their own, many families turned to food stamps to help them get by — and while food aid is no substitute for a good job, it did significantly mitigate their misery. Food stamps were especially helpful to children who would otherwise be living in extreme poverty, defined as an income less than half the official poverty line.
But there’s more. Why is our economy depressed? Because many players in the economy slashed spending at the same time, while relatively few players were willing to spend more. And because the economy is not like an individual household — your spending is my income, my spending is your income — the result was a general fall in incomes and plunge in employment. We desperately needed (and still need) public policies to promote higher spending on a temporary basis — and the expansion of food stamps, which helps families living on the edge and let them spend more on other necessities, is just such a policy.
Indeed, estimates from the consulting firm Moody’s Analytics suggest that each dollar spent on food stamps in a depressed economy raises G.D.P. by about $1.70 — which means, by the way, that much of the money laid out to help families in need actually comes right back to the government in the form of higher revenue.
Wait, we’re not done yet. Food stamps greatly reduce food insecurity among low-income children, which, in turn, greatly enhances their chances of doing well in school and growing up to be successful, productive adults. So food stamps are in a very real sense an investment in the nation’s future — an investment that in the long run almost surely reduces the budget deficit, because tomorrow’s adults will also be tomorrow’s taxpayers.
So what do Republicans want to do with this paragon of programs? First, shrink it; then, effectively kill it.
The shrinking part comes from the latest farm bill released by the House Agriculture Committee (for historical reasons, the food stamp program is administered by the Agriculture Department). That bill would push about two million people off the program. You should bear in mind, by the way, that one effect of the sequester has been to pose a serious threat to a different but related program that provides nutritional aid to millions of pregnant mothers, infants, and children. Ensuring that the next generation grows up nutritionally deprived — now that’s what I call forward thinking.
And why must food stamps be cut? We can’t afford it, say politicians like Representative Stephen Fincher, a Republican of Tennessee, who backed his position with biblical quotations — and who also, it turns out, has personally received millions in farm subsidies over the years.
These cuts are, however, just the beginning of the assault on food stamps. Remember, Representative Paul Ryan’s budget is still the official G.O.P. position on fiscal policy, and that budget calls for converting food stamps into a block grant program with sharply reduced spending. If this proposal had been in effect when the Great Recession struck, the food stamp program could not have expanded the way it did, which would have meant vastly more hardship, including a lot of outright hunger, for millions of Americans, and for children in particular.
Look, I understand the supposed rationale: We’re becoming a nation of takers, and doing stuff like feeding poor children and giving them adequate health care are just creating a culture of dependency — and that culture of dependency, not runaway bankers, somehow caused our economic crisis.
But I wonder whether even Republicans really believe that story — or at least are confident enough in their diagnosis to justify policies that more or less literally take food from the mouths of hungry children. As I said, there are times when cynicism just doesn’t cut it; this is a time to get really, really angry.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, May 30, 2013
We know American politics are dysfunctional. But after a week of scandal obsession during which the nation’s capital and the media virtually ignored the problems most voters care about — jobs, incomes, growth, opportunity, education — it’s worth asking if there is something especially flawed about our democracy.
Our circumstances certainly have their own particular disabilities: a radicalization of conservative politics, over-the-top mistrust of President Obama on the right, high-tech gerrymandering in the House and a Senate snarled by non-constitutional super-majority requirements.
Still, while it may not be much of a comfort, the democratic distemper is not a peculiarly American phenomenon. Across most of the democratic world, there is an impatience bordering on exhaustion with electoral systems and political classes.
Citizen dissatisfaction is hardly surprising in the wake of a deeply damaging economic downturn. That doesn’t make the challenge any less daunting. We should consider whether democracy itself is in danger of being discredited. Politicians might usefully disentangle themselves from their day-to-day power struggles long enough to take seriously their responsibility to a noble idea and the systems that undergird it.
It’s not hard to discover that this conundrum is global and not just our own. “Has democracy had its day?” is the headline on Columbia University historian Mark Mazower’s cover story in the May issue of Prospect, a British magazine. The subhead: “Electoral politics has had a bad decade.”
Earlier this month, the Transatlantic Academy, a global partnership of think tanks led by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, issued “The Democratic Disconnect,” a sober report by a group of distinguished academics.
“Democracy is in trouble,” the report begins. “The collective engagement of a concerned citizenry for the public good — the bedrock of a healthy democracy — is eroding. Democratic governments often seem crippled in their capacity to deliver what their people want and need. They are neither as responsive nor as accountable as they need to be in an era of hard choices and rising nondemocratic powers. There is widespread concern about apparent declining rates of voter participation and about the alienation or disaffection of citizens from the political process.”
In Europe, the authors noted, “there is fear that the distance between ordinary citizens and the politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels compromises democratic legitimacy.” In the United States, “lamentations about gridlock and polarization are the order of the day.” Even our peaceable neighbor Canada is not immune. “Canadians,” they write, “worry about the tendency of their political system to place largely unaccountable power in the hands of the prime minister.”
The report does include some useful suggestions for reviving the democratic spirit and improving democratic practice. But it is not alarmist to be uneasy about democracy’s prospects. Ernst Hillebrand, the head of international policy analysis for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the German Social Democratic Party’s think tank, describes a chilling finding in a 2009 survey by the German polling firm Forsa: “that zero percent — yes, zero percent — of workers in Germany believe they can have a significant impact on how policy in Germany is shaped via the ballot box.”
And bear in mind that a poll released last week by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that Germans are far more satisfied with their country’s situation than are their European neighbors.
In a conversation last week during a visit to Washington, Hillebrand pointed to two streams of discontent the world’s democracies face. One is material. The other might be called spiritual.
On the one side, large numbers of lower-middle-class and working-class voters have seen their economic standing deteriorate over two or three decades. There has been a substantial transfer of wealth and income from labor — which is how most people pay their way — to capital. Productivity gains no longer lead to wage gains. This builds justified frustration.
At the same time, he said, many citizens, especially the young, have enhanced expectations for “participation, self-realization and control over their lives.” They do not see current electoral arrangements in democracies giving them much chance to achieve any of these goals.
Since World War II, bouts of economic growth have allowed democracies to buy their way out of trouble. One can hope this will happen again — and soon. In the meantime, politicians might contemplate their obligations to stewardship of the democratic ideal. They could begin by pondering what an unemployed 28-year-old makes of a ruling elite that expends so much energy feuding over how bureaucrats rewrote a set of talking points.
By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, May 19, 2013
“Hurting The Most Vulnerable”: Cutbacks To Unemployment Insurance Came Long Before The Great Recession
You may have heard that we’re in the middle of an unemployment crisis. It’s little wonder that an average of 365,500 people per week made new claims for unemployment benefits over the past month. These high numbers have been straining unemployment insurance programs at the federal and state level, and many states have run out of reserves to pay for them, triggering a reduction in benefits. But this crisis wasn’t inevitable. The pull back in unemployment benefits is just another result of state-level choices to cut taxes at the expense of state spending, spending that could be cushioning the blow of the Great Recession.
States are unable to adequately finance their unemployment insurance programs just when they are most needed not because they were unexpectedly overwhelmed. As a new report from the National Employment Law Project shows, it was because they failed to finance them during the good times like they’re supposed to. Here’s the way it works: federal law requires each state to collect unemployment insurance contributions from employers and deposit them into a state trust fund held in the treasury. During good times, the trust funds accumulate reserves so that claims can be paid out during downturns. This makes the program countercyclical, helping to pump money into workers’ pockets and therefore businesses (via their spending) when times are tough.
The problem is that employer contribution rates vary among and even within states. Not shockingly, business groups turn on political pressure to reduce employer contributions and taxes during good times before the coffers are adequately full. And too many states gave in to this temptation before the recession. As the report notes, “Thirty‐one states reduced UI taxes by at least 20 percent between 1995 and 2005.” Meanwhile, from 2000–09 the average UI contribution rate was .65 percent of total wages, “the lowest in the life of our federal‐state UI program.” That left many of the reserves underfunded, especially when they were called upon to respond to the financial crisis.
And now, of course, the demand for these benefits is at a historically high levels. So what have states done to address the fact that they don’t have the funds to pay them out? The solutions “have tended to focus more on curtailing and reducing benefit payments than on the revenue side of the equation,” the report says. That is, rather than looking at ways to hike taxes or employer contributions to make up the shortfall, most states have cut back on benefits for the unemployed.
Over the past thirty years, lawmakers have eroded long-standing features such as the duration of benefits that were “previously seen as untouchable,” and today’s responses follow that trend. Six states have reduced the maximum duration of benefits below twenty-six weeks, which has been the standard since the 1950s. Other states have put up barriers to benefits, like drug testing requirements and excluding seasonal workers. Several states and even the federal government have limited the number of unemployed workers who qualify, forced skilled workers to accept low-wage jobs and lowered the value of payments. Meanwhile, most states did nothing to raise revenues or “passed token policies that will raise a negligible amount of revenue”—the only states to buck that trend were Colorado, Rhode Island and Vermont.
This may sound familiar. That’s because tax cuts have gotten in the way of other important policies at the state level. As Mike Konczal and I showed earlier this year, a handful of ultraconservative state governments were responsible for the massive wave of public sector job losses the country has experienced during the recovery. But layoffs weren’t the only option for dealing with tight state budgets: many of these states also cut corporate taxes or taxes on high-income earners (or both). Estimates have shown that without these job losses, unemployment would likely be a full percentage point lower than what it is now.
And there’s another fiscally irresponsible choice a number of states have said they’ll be making soon: the refusal to expand Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act. The Supreme Court ruling that upheld the law struck down the part that would have all but ensured across-the-board participation, and now at least fifteen governors are indicating that they’ll opt out—despite the fact that the federal government will pick up the tab for the full price of expansion in the early years and 90 percent after that. One study even found that the expansion could actually end up saving these states money. But even if that didn’t pan out, Richard Kim recently made a clear case that there are some pretty painless ways for these states to find the money to expand Medicaid. The only catch? They require raising taxes. Either by undoing some unnecessary tax breaks or raising taxes modestly, the states that are threatening fiscal ruin at the hands of this mandate can actually easily afford what it’ll cost them. Small price to pay when Medicaid saves lives.
So-called “tough choices” aren’t always so tough. Some of the policies that are exacerbating the effects of the recession and hurting the most vulnerable among us have been implemented because states refuse to look at the revenue side of their ledgers. The choices to lower taxes or ignore raising them aren’t made in a vacuum. There are often painful consequences, borne by those who can least afford it.
By: Bryce Covert, The Nation, August 6, 2012
“Insane Economic Policy”: GOP’s Rejection Of Medicaid Funds Is One More Ideologically Driven Bad Idea
My emotions after the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act last week went through various stages: confusion (thanks, CNN), shock and finally sheer joy. It was a complete surprise to have the highest court uphold the entire law, including the individual mandate. Liberals rightly celebrated the ruling as a historic step toward ensuring a better quality of life for all Americans.
But in the jubilation hangover, some more sober analysis has taken its place. One important aspect of the Court’s decision gives no reason to celebrate: the ruling that the federal government can’t withdraw all Medicaid funds from governors who refuse to expand Medicaid rolls in their states, essentially making it possible for them to opt out. The Medicaid expansion is meant to give coverage to about 17 million Americans by 2019, accounting for almost half of the 32 million people the bill promised to insure. Yet as Sarah Kliff reported, if states opt out of expanding Medicaid, it could leave some of the poorest Americans stuck in a no-man’s land in which they don’t qualify for Medicaid but also don’t qualify for subsidies to buy insurance. Beyond literally being a matter of life or death for many uninsured Americans, it’s also an economic issue: the White House calculated that expanding the number of Americans with insurance would increase economic well-being by about $100 billion a year, or about two-thirds of a percent of GDP.
It seems foolhardy for governors to reject what is basically free money to help more people in their own states gain health insurance. Josh Barro wrote just after the ruling that while the White House’s stick was taken away, its carrot—the federal government’s picking up 100 percent of the states’ Medicaid expansion tab for the early years, gradually declining to 90 percent after that—would be enough to incite states to participate. And they stand to see other economic benefits. States that already provide coverage and care to people living at 133 percent of the poverty line would no longer shoulder those costs, saving them millions. Even for those that don’t offer such coverage, the bill stands to save all states money by getting rid of the “hidden tax” they pay in higher insurance premiums that account for the cost of covering the uninsured, also potentially saving millions.
Yet Republican governors are already contemplating rejecting the money. The Hill reported this week that fifteen governors are either flat-out planning to reject the Medicaid expansion money or are leaning in that direction. Firm nos have come from Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Carolina and Wisconsin. Eight more are still undecided yet appear to be following suit: Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Texas and Virginia. Yet Brian Beutler reports today that these very states have some of the country’s highest uninsured rates and would stand to see the biggest benefits. Florida ties with Nevada and New Mexico in second to last place in the country at 21 percent uninsured, and South Carolina and Louisiana come in with 19 and 17 percent rates, respectively.
An indignant refusal of federal money in these states may sound familiar. Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas were among the handful of states to say they would reject federal stimulus money way back in early 2009. The argument was similar back then: as with the Medicaid expansion money, the states were expected to change some policies to protect more of their residents from economic harm. In the case of the stimulus money, they had to expand unemployment benefits to more people. That’s what made GOP governors too cranky to accept the funds. Eventually all fifty accepted federal funds, although some still turned away the money meant to increase those unemployment benefits. Meanwhile, the last holdout, South Carolina, had the nation’s second-highest unemployment rate at the time that it was contemplating rejecting the funds on ideological grounds.
But other federal money was later rejected outright. After President Obama’s 2010 State of the Union, he called for building a high-speed rail network and pledged $8 billion in stimulus money for rail projects in various states. Yet four Republican governors—New Jersey’s Christie, Wisconsin’s Walker, Ohio’s Kasich and Florida’s Scott—refused to take money for the projects. They would have created tens of thousands of jobs in each state—an estimated 16,000 in Ohio, 10,000 in Wisconsin and 10,000 in Florida.
Meanwhile, as research my colleague Mike Konczal and I conducted showed, ultraconservative Republican governors across the country have been enacting policies that hurt their economies, and therefore the entire economy, in other ways. In the midst of a massive jobs crisis, the eleven states that flipped red after the 2010 midterms and Texas accounted for 70 percent of public sector job losses last year, either laying off or pushing these workers out through attrition. The rest of the states lost only an average of .5 percent of their government workforces. Without these massive waves of job losses, our unemployment rate would likely be closer to 7 percent.
What ties all of these conservative state-level actions together? An adherence to ideology over what’s best for the economy—even their own state economies. The belief that government spending should be shrunk at all costs has steamrolled over policies that shouldn’t be about party affiliation. Taking federal money for much-needed updates to our infrastructure that would also create thousands of jobs is clearly the right choice. Throwing government workers out of their jobs at a time of sky-high unemployment is clearly the wrong choice. And now these conservative states are threatening to keep millions of Americans out of health insurance policies because they worry about higher state spending in the long run. This despite the fact that their residents and their budgets stand to see huge benefits now. The Republican Party’s abhorrence of government is driving bad economic decision-making—and that’s hurting all of us.
By: Bryce Covert, The Nation, July 5, 2012