Tag Archives: Elizabeth Warren

Three secrets to revitalizing liberal America

2014 was not a good year for the left. Republicans now have a stranglehold on the House, where they control the most seats they’ve had since 1948. That lead will likely last fordecades. Democrats didn’t just lose the Senate, they have significantly diminished their chance of regaining it in 2016. Republicans control 31 governorships, as well as 68 of 98 legislative chambers. And of, course, the Democratic party has shown itself to be only nominally liberal, with the current frontrunner for 2016 raising money from Wall Street financiers. The left then has two problems: how to get Democrats winning and how to get Democrats to avoid becoming a party permanently in the callous hands of capital.

Currently, much of the hope for a more liberal Democratic party rests on the shoulders of Elizabeth Warren, who is being drafted to run against Hillary Clinton. While Warren is formidable, it was only six years ago that the left laid its hopes for victory on a single individual and found itself sorely disappointed. The left must remember that leaders do not make movements; rather, movements make leaders. Instead of vacillating from one hero to another, the left must create a formidable power base from which to both defeat Republicans and shift Democrats to the left. This will require a three-pronged approach: mass mobilization of the non-voting population, a stable of progressive leaders and a reduction in the influence of money in politics.

1. Mass Mobilization



There is now a definitive literature that establishes the following facts: First, turnout in the United States is deeply skewed by income. Second, this skew leads politicians to prioritize the preferences of the rich voters of poor non-voters. Third, reducing this income skew would lead to policies that benefit the poor. We can see this within the states, where two studies find states with lower turnout inequality have lower income inequality. States with lower turnout inequality have higher minimum wages, more generous child healthcare programs, stricter and predatory lending laws and higher welfare benefits. Internationally, higher turnout inequality is correlated with lower redistribution, and the United States has the highest turnout inequality internationally.

A recent study by political scientists John Griffin and Brian Newman helps explain why. The authors examine “wins” and “losses” for various groups, that is, how often their member of Congress voted according to their preference. They find that voters win 53.1% of the time, while non-voters only win 48.8% of the time. That should be worrying for the left, since research suggests that non-voters are much more economically liberal than voters. A 2012 Pew Study finds that non-voters were far more likely to support the Affordable Care Act (49% of likely voters supporting repeal, compared to only 31% of non-voters). Non-voters were far more likely to support Obama (47% of likely voters versus 59% of non-voters) and oppose Romney (47% and 24%). Non-voters are more likely than voters to support policies to strengthen unions and to support a job guarantee.

How do we boost turnout low-income turnout? We know. Same-day registration is provento boost turnout and reduce turnout inequality. Felony disenfranchisement laws primarily affect the poor (and people of color). Our two-step elections system (which requires registration) hurts low-income people who are less likely to be registered. To combat this states should better comply with the National Voter Registration Act, which requires public assistance agencies (including the offices enforcing Obamacare) and DMVs to hand out registration forms. The left must also stop the rise of voter ID laws, which disproportionately affect voters of color and low income voters. In the long run, a mandatory voting law would be ideal.

2.     A Stable of Progress Leaders

Although voting benefits nearly all groups, Blacks do not gain as much from voting, according to a recent study (cited above) by Griffin and Newman. That is because, as Paul Frymer notes, Democrats often have an incentive to try to court white voters or high income votes to ensure re-election (under the assumption that Blacks won’t run for to the Republican Party). The best way to solve this problem is more people of color in office. Research by Eric Juenke and Robert Preuhs finds that at the state level, people of color are better represented by people of color than white Democrats. Griffin and Newman findmuch the same thing at the federal level, with some caveats (in some cases, white Democrats are equally effective). Christian Grose finds that Black dedicate more money to African-American constituents. Descriptive representation also leads to more people of color voting, which further strengthens the left.

Also lacking in office is workers. Nicholas Carnes finds that while more than half of all Americans have working class jobs, over the last century workers have never made up more than 2% of representatives at the Congressional level and they make up little moreof representatives at the state level. This is important because numerous studies show that wealthy congressmembers tend to vote more in favor of  business interests and tax cuts, while workers are much more liberal, as measured by AFL-CIO scores.

The good news is that research suggests that people of color are actually just as likely as white candidates to win: the problem is that they often don’t run. The same is true of workers. Carnes finds that training programs can help prepare workers for a campaign, and workers who completed the New Jersey ““Labor Candidate School,” had a 75% success rate. Party leaders who are crucial to the candidate election process need to cultivate workers, women and people of color to run. Finally, the left needs a stable of wonkish administrators that can offer policy recommendations.

3. Get Money Out of Politics

But candidates don’t run and politicians don’t vote in a vacuum. The last decade has seen an explosion of money in politics and it’s distorting the political process. SuperPACs are flooded the airwaves, corporations are spending nearly unprecedented amounts on lobbying and the system is awash with “dark money” that cannot be traced to a donor. Sheldon and Miriam Adelson spent $91.8 million to influence the 2012 election, more than the combined residents of 12 states. In 1980, the largest contributor, Cecil R. Haden gave only $1.72 million in inflation-adjusted dollars. The richest .01% of the populationaccount for 40% of campaign contributions.

This is worrying, because a vast literature shows that campaign contributions can influence outcomes, that lobbying tilts policy in favor of lobbyists and that individual donors can set the political agenda. The problem is that the rich have very different priorities than the middle class. A pioneering study of the policy preferences of the richfinds that the rich are, “extremely active politically and that they are much more conservative than the American public as a whole with respect to important policies concerning taxation, economic regulation, and especially social welfare programs.” Further, numerous studies find that when preferences collide, the rich win out.

Although it seems daunting, there are actually numerous policies that the left could pursue that would halt the rise of money in politics. Lobbying regulations have been shown to increase political equality. Unions, which advocate in the interests of all Americans can provide a bulwark to corporations but political spending from both are treated differently. The scatterplot below shows the five unions included in the analysis are (AFL-CIO, AFSCME, Teamster, UAW and the National Education Association). They also alignwith the middle class.

These disparities can be reconciled through a bill like the DISCLOSE Act or SEC oversight, which would bring corporate political spending out of the dark and into the public spotlight. It’s also important to lay the intellectual and legal groundwork to eventually overturn Citizens United and McCutcheon.

These policies are specifically selected because they have a track-record of success that is empirically proven. They are also policies that can be persuasively presented to voters. Politicians aim to get re-elected and they will do whatever it takes to maintain power. With these policies, politicians will have to win the votes of an increasingly economically liberal electorate. The goal of the left should be to force Democrats to adopt economically liberal policies or fear for their seat.

But a progressive America will require work. While it is easy to crown Obama or Warren savior and wait in anticipation for change, those who do so are waiting for Godot. There have been successes over the last year: the Working Families Party helped re-elect Governor Malloy, a consistent progressive (something possible partially because of public financing. Demos (my organization) has been doggedly ensuring that states comply with Motor Voter and we’ve had victories on Same-Day registration. These wins were difficult, but they compound into more victories down the road. But simply anointing another progressive to lead the movement will only lead to disappointment.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

America’s white millennial problem: Why the next great generation might not be a liberal one

Nearly anytime Democrats lose an election, there is a pervasive narrative that, just around the bend, there will be an “emerging Democratic majority.” Originally projected to occur between 2004 and 2008, it now appears further away than ever after last month’s midterm blowout. Republicans have a stranglehold on the House, where they control their largest number of seats since 1948. That lead will be incredibly tough to chip away at. Democratic chances of regaining the Senate in 2016, once considered a near certainty, are looking iffy. Republicans control 31 governorships, as well as 68 of 98 state legislative chambers. Democrats still have a strong chance of winning the Presidency, but given the importance of the states for shaping income distribution and policy, even that victory will ring hollow.

Yet again, the Democratic Party faces bleak governing prospects in the short term, with only the nebulous promise of a demographic windfall somewhere off in the future — and even that prospect should be little comfort to progressives. While the “millennial” generation has widely been seen as the key to future of Democratic successes, there are reasons to believe that the liberalism of millennials, at least on certain key issues, has been overstated.

Yes, there is a strong case that younger voters on the whole are more liberal. For instance, a study by the Center for American Progress finds that while the mean American’s ideological position is 209 (with 0 being most conservative and 400 being most progressive), those under 29 score 219.7 (Obama voters scored 244).  But while millennials are more socially liberal across the board, there are stark racial divides on economic issues. Younger voters are more likely than older voters to agree with the statement, “Labor unions are necessary to protect the working person” and “the government should be doing more to solve problems.” These questions, however, are rather vague and positively worded. And other data suggest a large gap between white millenials and millenials of color. For instance, young white men supported Romney in the 2012 election.

White millenials are also significantly less supportive of Obama (54 percent) than black millenials (95 percent) and Hispanic millenials (76 percent). The most recent poll of Obama finds that young whites and older whites have virtually identical approval ratings. A recent Pew survey of millennials finds that on economic issues, there are strong gaps between young whites and young non-white millenials (see chart).

On social issues, however, these gaps are virtually non-existent. This suggests that while social liberalism will continue to be a political winner, economic liberalism may be tougher to sell to white millenials. Additionally, while white millenials say they want to live in a racially equitable society, they are no more likely than their parents to support policies to make that society come about. ”At the same time, whites primed with the reality of growing diversity become are less likely to say they support diversity and more likely to support the Republican party.”

Furthermore, even as minorities make up a larger and larger percentage of the electorate, these racial changes will not inevitably benefit Democrats. While Republicans have never won more than 40 percent of the Latino vote  – the claim that Bush won 44 percent in 2004, as widely reported, now appears to have been incorrect — they could do so in the future. Pew data, for example, show that third generation Hispanics are more socially liberal, but more economically conservative than older Hispanics.

Additionally, a recent Gallup poll shows support for Obama among younger Black Americans is modestly lower than support among their older counterparts. This actually hold strue among millenials as a whole; as there appear to be age gaps that would render the Democratic advantage ephemeral. Harvard’s Institute of Politics finds that there is a distinct difference between the way young millenials (18-to-24) and older millenials (25-to-29) view Obama. Meanwhile, a 2012 American University poll finds that college students in swing states supported Obama by 35 points, while high schoolers (13-to-17) in swing states supported Obama over Romney by only 7 points.

Discussing the future always presents challenges, particularly in the realm of politics. However, when we look at the ideologies that shape the parties, we can see a few general trends from these data. First, the economic liberalism of the millenial generation appears to be driven primarily by people of color, rather than by younger, more liberal whites. (On social issues, the generation appears to be more liberal across the board.) Second, while millenials lean Democratic, they are still effectively up for grabs. White millenials, the data show, may become suspicious of further government programs to advance racial equality, and young people of color may be open to a Republican party that eschews virulent racism. Finally, electoral structures combined with the geographic locations of Democratic voters will bias the system toward Republicans for at least another decade, and possibly longer.

It’s difficult to know what parties will do to remain viable in a shifting American political landscape. However, it’s by no means certain that a new “Democratic majority” will be an economically liberal one. It’s plausible that the new Democratic party will embrace an Andrew Cuomo-esque neoliberalism. The Democratic party that appears to be emerging will be friendlier to finance and economically conservative, but also very socially liberal, particularly on gay marriage and women’s rights. The Democratic party will be committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions but not at a terrible price to businesses. Public goods will be sold off at bargain basement prices and the safety net will be expanded only slowly, if at all. Both parties will pretend that racial grievances are a thing of the past and present a rosy vision of color-blind America. The ideological distance of both parties on foreign policy will remain where it is today: virtually indistinguishable. This is not inevitable, but what we know about millenials, particularly white ones, suggest this is the most plausible scenario. In the battle for the soul of the Democratic party, millenials might not be on Team Elizabeth Warren.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

How Thomas Piketty and Elizabeth Warren demolished the conventional wisdom on debt

In a 2006 “Saturday Night Live” sketch, Chris Parnell sums up the conventional wisdom about credit card debt:

“Did you know millions of Americans live with debt they can not control? That’s why I’ve developed this unique new program for managing your debt. It’s called, Don’t Buy Stuff You Can’t Afford.”

According to the prevailing story, debt is caused by lavish and irresponsible spending by poor and middle-class families. But like much “conventional wisdom,” an increasing amount of evidence belies this point. In fact, the decline of saving and the rise of debt was an almost inevitable consequence of families trying to scrape by in the face of rising inequality. This is the corollary of French economist Thomas Piketty’s now-famous observation:While capital is increasingly concentrated at the top, it turns out that debt is becoming concentrated at the bottom.

In the same “SNL” bit, Amy Poehler says, “There’s a whole section in here about buying expensive things using money you save.” This supposedly common-sense observation is mirrored elsewhere. The American Institute of CPAs runs an advertising campaign urging people to “Feed the Pig.” One such ad depicts a responsible couple studiously saving for a house, while another eats lobster, receives massages and then complains about “never having enough to put away.” Underlying both the real commercial and the satirical one is the idea that those who aren’t saving could do so, but are instead spending the money. But the evidence for this story is weak.

A more compelling story is that inequality has made it harder for households at the middle and bottom to save.  In fact, the decline in savings has coincide with a rise in income inequality (see chart). There is evidence that these trends are connected.



American households falling in the bottom third of income growth from 1999 to 2007 accounted for a full half of the decline in the overall saving rate over the same period,according to the IMF. Meanwhile, a 2012 Demos study finds that “40 percent of households used credit cards to pay for basic living expenses such as rent or mortgage bills, groceries, utilities, or insurance, in the past year because they did not have enough money in their checking or savings account.” Another 2012 study finds that “regions or periods with higher inequality are characterized not only by a more unequal distribution of saving rates but also by lower saving rates for most of the income distribution.”

One of the myths of the right has been that if the rich have more money, they’ll save and invest more as a result, thereby stimulating the economy. That is, more inequality will lead to more national saving. In fact, the data shows that inequality just concentrates wealth in the hands of the few. It also points to the important possibility that the increase in income inequality is what drove the savings rate down to begin with, by also increasing disparities in wealth.

Wealth serves as a buffer for an income shock, like losing a job or a medical emergency; it also constitutes a family’s retirement income and the means for funding children’s education. However, the rise in income inequality has been coupled with a rise in wealth inequality, meaning that wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few. Recently, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman have shown the increase of wealth inequality in the United States (source).

This rising wealth inequality means that American households don’t have anything to fall back on in the case of a bout of unemployment or a health crisis. (One study finds that 62 percent of bankruptcies are medical-related.)

In a recent study, Amy Traub, a senior policy analyst at Demos, sought to test whether those with credit card debt were the profligates portrayed by popular culture. She used a national survey of 1,997 households to create two groups indistinguishable in terms of income, race, age, marital status and rate of homeownership. The only difference? One group had credit card debt, the other group didn’t. Traub finds that the households without debt had more assets, and fell back on them when dealing with unexpected expenses. She finds “little evidence” that “households with credit card debt are less responsible in their spending habits than households that do not have accumulated debt.” Instead, she finds that unemployment, children, lack of education, lack of health insurance and negative home equity correlate strongly with high levels of debt.

In their famous book on the subject, “The Two-Income Trap,” Elizabeth Warren andAmelia Warren Tyagi argue that slowing income growth, not overspending, is what’s driving families into debt. In an essay on Boston Review they write that,

There is no evidence of any ‘epidemic’ of overspending—certainly nothing that could explain a 255 percent increase in the foreclosure rate, a 430 percent increase in the bankruptcy rolls, and a 570 percent increase in credit-card debt.

The Warrens point to the increasing cost of education and housing. A 2000 study performed in Fresno, California, found that the most important determinant of neighborhood housing prices was school quality. The strongest evidence that the Warrens cite is that between 1984 and 2001 housing prices for those with one or more children increased at three times the rate of those without children. As families have tried to provide for the education for their children, they have increasingly been squeezed by high housing costs.

The final factor driving debt is unscrupulous practices by banking institutions.The CARD Act is saving Americans $12.6 billion a year by cutting back dodgy fees and other shady practices. But payday lenders can still prey on the poor. Traub finds that households with higher levels of credit card debt were more likely to have received financing from payday lenders. We need policies to give poor and middle-class workers more income and wealth. Increasing the minimum wage is a simple start. Incentivizing worker ownership and profit-sharing would also benefit workers. The government could give citizens a small basic income each year and it could also institute a “baby bond” policy, which would foster wealth building. On the other side, it needs to bust up concentrated and idle wealth by taxing it.

As Piketty notes in his interview with Matthew Yglesias, “My point is to increase wealth mobility and to increase access to wealth.” He aims to “reduce taxation of wealth for most people, but to increase it for those who already have a lot of wealth.” By spreading wealth to the middle class and poor, we could decrease the reliance on the “plastic safety net,” and create a strong and sustainable middle class.

Originally published on Salon.