The liberal critics of Big Government

What does it mean to be a “progressive” or “liberal” in America today? More than anything else, perhaps, it implies a determination to defend the signature achievements of the New Deal/Great Society eras: Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and a collection of related programs. And that’s just the problem, say their critics on the right: for progressives, government is the answer for everything. But are conservatives the only ones concerned about the growth of the administrative state—of bureaucracy? Should progressives be worried as well?

We’re used to conservatives, from Ron Paul to Rush Limbaugh, complaining about Big Government. Believe it or not, however, there was a time when liberals—social scientists, lawyers, some members of the Roosevelt administration, even the philosopher John Rawls—worried about the consequences of a liberal state built on regulation and government services and the people’s loyalty to the institutions responsible for them. Anne Kornhauser’s new book, Debating the American State: Liberal Anxieties and the New Leviathan, 1930-1970 (University of Pennsylvania Press), reintroduces the liberal critics of Big Government, arguing that their concerns are still relevant today, particularly since Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency refocused concern on the surveillance bureaucracy.

Discussing the implications of her book for today, Kornhauser, a historian at City College of New York, ticks off a number of other areas where the New Deal institutions and their progeny are not fulfilling their expected role, including health care and regulation of the financial services sector along with national security. Continue reading →

A Lifeline, Not a Safety Net

What’s the biggest source of income for Americans in the last years of their lives? Whether you live to 65, 75, or 85-plus, no matter if you’re married or single, the answer is the same: Social Security. And in the you’re-on-your-own, 401(k) era, this hard fact is only becoming more so.

More Americans are elderly—over 65—today than at any time in the nation’s history, and more of these older people are living to a really advanced age than ever before. It’s safe to say we collect more data on them than ever before, as well. That means we’ve never had as good a chance to study the financial health of the elderly.

Using data from University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study (HRS), sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, the Employee Benefit Research Institute has just released a fascinating analysis of individuals who responded to the HRS survey in 2010 and died before the next, 2012 survey. Continue reading →

Why Hillary Clinton Is Beyond the Pale

This is a bit off-topic for this blog, but it has to be said: By her calculated failure to take a stand on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the former secretary of state has made herself absolutely unacceptable as a presidential candidate for working Americans.

It’s crunch time for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the most sweeping multilateral trade agreement since NAFTA. Fast-track authority for the president, gussied up with some face-saving amendments to make it look like Congress will have a real debate when Obama submits the deal to lawmakers later this year, has passed out of committee in both the House and Senate. That means fast-track will be decided upon in a matter of days or weeks.

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The Meaning of Harry Reid’s Departure

For the last decade, Harry Reid has been a bulwark against efforts by Republicans and members of his own party to send the core of the New Deal achievement down the road to oblivion. Other Democratic lawmakers may be equally committed, but almost none have the same close emotional ties that he possesses to the Rooseveltian state.

When Senate minority leader Harry Reid announced last week that he won’t run for reelection in 2016, the first thing that flashed through my mind was his age: he’s 75. Only nine senators are older than Reid, and only two of them are Democrats. That underscores how few people still serving in the Senate were born during the New Deal, the period that formed the modern US government, with its social protections, administrative apparatus, and (not so happily) military-industrial complex. For the past 35 years, roughly corresponding to Reid’s career in electoral office, the legislation that Washington enacted during the Great Depression has been a war zone, Continue reading →

AK Press Needs Your Help

Independent publishers are a bulwark of free speech, free exchange of ideas, and the struggle for a better world. The last thing one of our best indy publishers (and distributors) needed was a warehouse fire.

AK Press, publishers of my book, The People’s Pension, suffered a calamity just 10 days ago when a fire broke out in the printing plant that adjoins AK’s warehouse and offices in Oakland, California. Three days later, the City of Oakland red-tagged the entire building, which means no one can re-occupy it until it is again deemed safe. AK are still waiting to get back in, which means it’s difficult for the publishing collective to take care of day-to-day business. As they announced last week, Continue reading →

The Origins of Pension Privatization: A New Perspective

Starting in the 1970s, governments authorized and promoted individual retirement accounts of various sorts. The commonly accepted explanation was that public pensions were no longer affordable and had to be supplemented or replaced by private saving. The truth, according to a revealing new paper, is that stock exchanges in developed countries promoted tax-advantaged private accounts as a quick way to build up domestic capital markets at a time of increasing global competition. The result has been an underfunded public sector—including cash-starved public pensions—and overfunded capital markets feeding unproductive financial speculation.

A wise person who had observed the private pension industry for many years once told me to remember that none of its structures—public pensions, employer-sponsored pensions, 401(k) plans, and every variation on these themes—are set up for the good of working people. They are products, designed to make money for the bank or insurance or mutual fund company that set it up and collects fees for managing and investing it.

That sensible, “follow the money” approach to understanding pensions informs an excellent new academic paper, “Feed the Beast: Finance Capitalism and the Spread of Pension Privatisation in Europe.” The authors, Marek Naczyk of Oxford University and Bruno Palier of the Centre d’Etudes Européenes at Sciences Po Paris, who first presented it at a conference last July, connect the dots to explain why the financial services industry in Europe first started pushing for pension privatization and why political leaders in these countries went along with the idea.  Continue reading →

What I Didn’t Hear in the President’s SOTU

Democrats of both progressive and center-right stripe generally gave President Obama high marks for his State of the Union address Tuesday night. When it comes to Social Security, however, he disappointed; merely refraining from supporting cuts to the program isn’t good enough anymore at a time when progressives should be demanding their president back measures to improve it.

“Obama in campaign mode, pushes middle class agenda,” declared Bill Galston, the Brookings Institution’s leading center-right commentator on the economy and fiscal policy. The Wall Street Journal agreed the president’s State of the Union address was a “middle-class pitch.”

Progressives mostly liked the president’s speech as well, except, of course, for his in-your-face demand for fast-track authority to pass another slew of corporate-backed trade deals. “Obama gets some of his swagger back,” Robert Borosage of the Campaign for America’s Future wrote.

There were things in the speech for people to like who were looking for signs that Washington cares about working people Continue reading →

Where’s the Rip-Off? Rand Paul in Perspective

Critics of Social Security’s Disability Insurance program would like you to think it’s riddled with incompetence and fraud. As for the spectacularly dysfunctional accounting and payment systems at the Defense Department … well, we just have to live with them, right?

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul kicked up a fuss last week when he claimed the Disability Insurance rolls are rife with fraudsters claiming phantom ailments.

What I tell people is, if you look like me and you hop out of your truck, you shouldn’t be getting a disability check. Over half of the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts—join the club. Who doesn’t get a little anxious for work everyday and their back hurts? Everybody over 40 has back pain.

This came soon after the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives announced new budget rules designed to force Congress to “repair” Social Security as a whole instead of shifting money into the DI fund to shore it up. Paul’s statement reinforced a line of attack Continue reading →

Mario Cuomo was not a “liberal beacon”

The former New York governor, who was laid to rest yesterday, is being mourned as a “forceful defender of liberalism.” In reality, he was a creator of the Democratic center-right and consistent supporter of anti-entitlement crusades.

For anyone who’s followed American politics closely for the past 40 years or so, the headlines following his death were enough to set your teeth on edge: “Mario Cuomo, Ex-New York Governor and Liberal Beacon” (New York Times); “Three-Time Governor; Liberal Leader” (Wall Street Journal). This image of the late politician is even enshrined in Wikipedia: “Cuomo was known for his liberal views and public speeches.”

None of this has much to do with the truth, or Cuomo’s place in history. Indeed, the notion that he was any kind of liberal stems almost entirely from a single speech he delivered at the Democratic National Convention in 1984. The substance of his career tells a different story. So let’s look at the facts.

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Enlisting AARP

Social Security will be under attack again in 2015. The best way for progressives to defend it is to go on the offensive as well, pressing Congress to pass one of the four bills now on the table to expand the program. Getting AARP on board would be a big help—but the giant older-Americans’ organization seems in no hurry.

AARP is by far the largest organization representing older Americans, and the most influential. Traditionally, it’s been reluctant to enter into coalitions with more overtly political groups advocating for seniors, presumably to sustain its image as a non-partisan organization. It’s a delicate balancing act, and not always successful, because no matter how moderate its policy positions, Republicans will always regard AARP as only slightly less evil than, say, the Socialist Workers Party.

With its 39 million members, AARP would be an invaluable ally in a 2015 push to expand Social Security. But an editorial by AARP’s CEO, Jo Ann Jenkins, suggests this is not a priority. Continue reading →

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