Tag Archives: Martin Gilens

Let’s pass the DISCLOSE Act

Yesterday, Senators Sheldon Whitehouse, Charles E. Schumer, Michael Bennet, Richard Blumenthal and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts re-introduced the DISCLOSE Act, a comprehensive disclosure legislation that came within one vote of overcoming a party line filibuster and adopting comprehensive disclosure legislation. This time, Congress should pass the DISCLOSE Act and require disclosure of contributions to organizations engaged in political spending.

When the Supreme Court struck down corporate and union spending limits in Citizen’s United, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court that, “disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way.” Later, when court struck down aggregate limits in McCutcheon v. FEC, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that, “With modern technology, disclosure now offers a particularly effective means of arming the voting public with information.” On at least two occasions then, the Court has chosen to remove limits on political spending on the implicit premise that this spending would be disclosed.

Sadly, Citizen’s United did not lead to more disclosure but instead to a wave of dark money. A recent study by the Center for Responsive Politics finds that “the percentage of spending coming from groups that do not disclose their donors has risen from 1 percent to 47 percent since the 2006 midterm elections.” The rise of dark money has been lopsided because unions are held to a far different standard than corporations are when it comes to political spending.

First, unions must publicly disclose all of their spending and also itemize payments over $5,000 with the date, name and address of the recipient, and purpose of the payment. Union members, the general public and journalists have easy access to union political spending with an online, searchable database. Union members can therefore decide whether the union leadership is spending money in line with their preferences and vote out the leadership if they are not. Further, some union members who dislike the way the union is disbursing funds can receive a refund of a portion of their dues. In some instances, public sector unions must seek the consent of members before they can make political contributions.

In addition, unions are far smaller than corporations and rarely use 501(c)4s to influence political campaigns. As Robert Maguire of the Center for Responsive Politics tells us, “even if unions funneled every dime  liberal 501(c)4s spent over the four years from Citizen’s United to present, that spending would still be nearly four times less than what their conservative counterparts spent in 2012 alone.” He notes that, American Encore, a Koch-backed conservative foundation, spent more money on the 2012 election than all of the union spending and liberal 501(c)4 spending from 2010 to 2014 combined.

When unions give to 501(c)4s, they must disclose their donation, when a corporation does, no such disclosure is required. Therefore, corporations now funnel hundreds of millions through “social welfare groups,” which have exploded in the past few years.

Center for Responsive Politics, OpenSecrets.org

Shareholders or employees who disagree with the way a corporation is spending money have no right to redress. While a growing number of corporations (about 100) have chosen to voluntarily disclose their donations, they frequently do so after elections cycles and often choose not to disclose more potentially controversial donations. Even Aetna, which has received praise for its disclosure policies, gave $7 million to two 501(c)(4) groups in 2012 but didn’t disclose their contributions even though they had an agreement with their shareholders. This isn’t the case everywhere: in Britain corporations must receive shareholder consent for their political budgets.

Corporate spending and union spending aren’t just different in terms of how they are regulated, they also represent the interests of different groups. Princeton political scientist Martin Gilens has used extensive polling data to compare the preferences of Americans across the income spectrum with organizations that influence the political process. He notes in his book Affluence and Influence, “based on unions’ strong tendency to share the preferences of the less well-off and the large number of policy areas they are engaged in . . ., unions would appear to be among the most promising interest group bases for strengthening the policy influence of America’s poor and middle class.” Corporate donors and business lobby groups, on the other hand, tend to pursue policies that are not in line with the preferences of most Americans. This bolsters the case for making disclosure for all groups mandatory.

Author’s Calculations based on Affluence and Influence, Table 5.7

In fact, polls show that 9 in 10 Americans believe there is too much corporate money in politics and majorities across the political spectrum support more disclosure. A bipartisan group of law professors have petitioned the SEC to “develop rules to require public companies to disclose to shareholders the use of corporate resources for political activities.” A petition urging the SEC to require corporate disclosure has more than 500,000 citizen signatures as well as the support of more than 70 members of congress and Vanguard Founder and CEO John Bogle.

However, the SEC has removed developing such rules from its agenda. Disclosure is a simple proposal that has been endorsed by the Supreme Court, the American people, law professors and politicians from both sides of the aisle. Recent evidence suggests that disclosure would increase policymaker’s responsiveness to their consituents. In the absence of SEC action, the DISCLOSE Act is the best way forward. While it’s only the first step in taking back our democracy, it should be an easy one.

Originally appeared on Policyshop.

You can blame America’s inequality and shrinking middle class for rising student debt

Co-Written with Mark Huelsman.

There is a tendency among elite opinion makers to believe that debt accrued while gaining a college degree is “good debt” that isn’t problematic because, as the thought goes, those with college degrees tend to make enough money to recoup their debt over a lifetime. Student debt is supposedly an equalizer—a way for students to gain access to credit in order to get a degree that will give them an equal chance to enter the middle class and achieve the American Dream. Sadly, like many pundit platitudes, this assertion is grounded in fantasy, not fact.

In fact, this is only true for some students—those who were fairly wealthy in the first place. College is certainly worth the cost, but that at present it is saddling poor and middle-class students with student debt is actually preventing them from participating in the wealth-building processes that previous generations have enjoyed.



The debate over student debt usually focuses on those right out of school, but that masks that a substantial portion of those with student debt struggle mightily to pay off their loans in a timely manner, delaying (sometimes in perpetuity) their entry into the middle class. Research by the US Federal Reserve Bank of New York finds that many borrowers still haven’t paid off their student loans by their 40s and 50s.


For students just out of school, upward of 15% of their federal student loans are in default within three years of students leaving school, and delinquency rates for student loans have continued to rise during and after the recession, even as delinquencies in every other form of loan—including mortgages, home equity loans, credit cards, and auto loans—have declined.

The inability to pay off debt is a really big deal, because these students are more likely to take any job that comes their way to pay off their loans than invest in themselves. Research from Demos finds that if “current borrowing patterns continue, student debt levels will reach $2 trillion sometime around 2022. Another report concludes that, “an average student debt burden for a dual-headed household with bachelors leads to a lifetime wealth loss of nearly $208,000.” Given that wealth inequality has returned to Gilded Era heights, this finding should be disturbing.

The problem is that, rather than being seen as a social investment, college education is increasingly seen as a commodity—something that is accessible for the wealthy, but out of reach for the poor, and increasingly, the middle class. Sure enough, student debt is highly correlated to income level with the wealthiest having the lowest amount of debt as a portion of their income (see table).


Poor and middle class students are much more likely to take on student loans—in fact, nearly 9 in 10 graduates who receive Pell Grants also needed to borrow to finance their degree, compared to 53% of graduates who did not receive Pell Grants. These students will spend more time paying off their debt and less time saving for retirement or other needs, creating a vicious cycle of deepening wealth inequality.

There is a more tenuous, but equally important way in which rising inequality has increased student debt among the poor and middle class – through the political system. Recently, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page sent the internet alight with their assertion that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” This finding is corroborated by Larry BartelsDorian WarrenJacob HackerPaul Pierson and Kay Lehman Schlozman who have all recorded similar findings.

Although this elite and corporate control of the political system is bad a priori, it has particular importance in the case of education. In their study of the political attitudes of the wealthiest 1%, Larry Bartels, Benjamin Page and Jason Seawright find that the wealthiest 1% have different policy priorities than average voters. For instance, while 78% of the general public agree with the statement, “The federal government should make sure that everyone who wants to go to college can do so,” only 28% of the wealthy agree. Elites are also far less likely to agree that, “The federal government should spend whatever is necessary to ensure that all children have really good public schools they can go to,” by a margin of 35% to 87%. They also believe that cutting deficits is a more important priority than funding education, and believe that education is a lower spending priority than the middle class.

This helps explain why states have slashed spending for education while also cutting taxes—those with the most influence over policy have little to gain from public education, but much to gain from cutting taxes. It also explains why there is very little national attention paid to community colleges, which educate 4 in 10 college students, and who are disproportionately impacted by state budget cuts.  Research by Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane shows that wealthy spend far more supplementing their children’s incomes than the poor, which means that state level cuts have a devastating impact on the poor (see chart).




Robert Hiltonsmith and Tamara Draut find that in the aftermath of the Great Recession, 49 states (all but North Dakota) cut spending on higher education and that state spending on higher education hit an all-time low in the wake of the recession (see chart). This, essentially, results in higher tuition. Draut and Hiltonsmith find that, “Nationally, average tuition at 4-year public universities increased by 20% in the four years since 2008 after rising 14% in the four years prior.” Tuition continues to grow as a share of the median income, which means all families but the very rich have to take out large debts to pay for their education. This, in turn, means that recent graduates are paying off loans, rather than building wealth.


College is an important pathway to the middle class and one of the most effective ways to fight inequality. As it becomes increasingly difficult for students to gain an education, it closes gateways to upward mobility. The effect is particularly potent for blacks. A recent study by Bhashkar Mazumder finds that, “blacks have experienced substantially less upward intergenerational mobility and substantially more downward intergenerational mobility than whites.” He finds that this gap shrinks among those with 16 years of schooling.

One simple way to move away from the debt-for-diploma system is for the government to shift from a policy of loans to a policy of grants. There is no reason why college education should primarily be funded by expensive, high interest loans. In the past, Pell Grants helped the poor and middle class attend college, but Pell Grants make up an increasingly low percentage of the cost for college (see chart).


At a bare minimum the government could allow students to refinance their debts at a lower level; most other countries have policies that allow students to pay off debts as a portion of their income and eventually allow the debts to be forgiven. In Britain, students don’t begin paying off their loans until they find stable employment, and then they pay in proportion to their earnings. Australia similarly ties the cost of paying off the loan to the income of the graduate, and loans themselves come with no interest attached. In Denmark, education is considered a right by the people and an investment by the government, and is therefore free. Some students are even offered a stipend by the government to defray costs. Norway and Sweden have  similar systems of higher education. The US has attempted to implement loan repayment schemes that allow students to pay in accordance with their income, but the default repayment plan on federal student loans is still an arbitrary 10-year time period—a time when borrowers tend to make less, and when saving for retirement could benefit them the most. But enrollment in these plans have been slow, likely due to the fact that our system is needlessly complex and opaque (to wit, there are upwards of 9 different repayment plans one can choose on student loans).

Education, and especially college education is a pathway to the middle class, and most Americans think it is more important than ever. But as society becomes more unequal, access to debt-free education becomes harder and harder.

Originally published on Quartz. 

The “donor class” and the minimum wage

When the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently released a new report estimating the effects of a higher minimum wage, conservatives pounced on the possibility that a minimum wage hike to $10.10 would cost about 500,000 jobs. But much like their reaction to the recent report about the Affordable Care Act, they are jumping to conclusions far too quickly.

First, there are reasons to be skeptical about the negative employment effect. Many studies find no negative employment effects. A recent report by Demos finds that by stimulating economic growth, a minimum wage could in fact create jobs. After all, a worker for one company is a customer for another. Minimum wage workers struggling to make ends meet are more likely to spend, reviving local economies. This is the argument forwarded by billionaire investment banker Nick Hanauer and economists like Joseph Stiglitz. It has strong theoretical support, as well as empirical support; studies show that poor workers are more likely to spend marginal income than wealthy workers.

Part of the problem is that the CBO relies heavily on simulations, rather than the empirical (observed) effects of the minimum wage. Textbook economics would predict job losses; if you make a good (labor) more costly, you reduce demand for it. But the world doesn’t work like a textbook. Workers being paid more may work harder (economists call this an “efficiency wage”). Workers struggling to make ends meet may not be paid in accordance with their ability, because they can’t credibly threaten to leave their job or unionize (they will simply be fired and replaced). The most famous study on the issue, by David Card and Alan Krueger finds that, “Contrary to the central prediction of the textbook model of the minimum wage … we find no evidence that the rise in New Jersey’s minimum wage reduced employment at fast-food restaurants in the state.” More recently, these findings were replicated empirically by Arindrajit Dube, T. William Lester and Michael Reich.

Looking internationally will not help Republicans. Even the right-leaning Economist magazine has argued that a minimum wage hike in Britain, “has done little or no harm” and instead, “Not only has it pushed up pay for the bottom 5% of workers, but it also seems to have boosted earnings further up the income scale—and thus reduced wage inequality.” The U.S. minimum wage pales in comparison to other developed countries; Australia’s is more than double our own. Historically, too, the current minimum wage is anomalous. Adjusted for inflation, it is far lower than the $10.77 a worker would be making in 1968.

But even if some minor job losses materialize, raising the minimum wage is still good policy. The data show that 55% of the people making a minimum wage work full-time and their the average age is 35. Many of these workers are struggling under student debt, or the costs of raising children. These are not simply college students working on the side; for many people these jobs are the only source of vital income. For these poor workers, a $3 raise may be the difference between a Thanksgiving Turkey and empty stomachs.

The minimum wage has potent implications for our national discussion of inequality and upward mobility. Republicans have been paying lip service to the idea of reducing inequality and increasing upward mobility, but so far policy proposals have been sparse. The minimum wage is a perfect solution. It requires little government spending and is unlikely to have any significant effect on the deficit. It certainly doesn’t violate the “no new taxes” pledge. So a minimum wage hike would be the perfect conservative solution to inequality: targeted at working people (rather than the unemployed), minimal bureaucracy and no new revenue for the government. And studies show it would work. Larry Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute finds that the declining value of the minimum wage has been a major driver of increased inequality. Citing the work of David Autor, he finds that more than half of the growing divide between workers at the median and workers at the lowest 10% of the income distribution can be explained by a declining minimum wage.

The CBO isn’t interested in adjudicating studies, but rather creating a consensus, and it generally errs on the side of conservatism. While the effects of the minimum wage on the job market is mixed and uncertain, the effect on upward mobility is not. The CBO estimates that in total, “overall real income would rise by $1 billion” and that a $10.10 minimum wage could lift 900,000 people out of poverty. The report estimates that those making less than $26,300 a year will their real family income increase by $300 dollars, and those making less than $51,400 would see it rise by $200. All told, more than 16 million workers will be positively affected. For many, that might enough to fix a broken dishwasher or afford Christmas presents. However, one group would be negatively affected: those earning more than $182,200, who would see their real family income drop by $700. Given that this classis the most likely to vote and donate money to Republicans, it’s unsurprising that the part will be slow to embrace raising the minimum wage. Business groups like the Chamber of Commerce have spent millions aiming to keep the minimum wage low.

Republican opposition indicates just how much the party has been co-opted by the interests of the donor class. While a large plurality of economists and more than 73% of citizens support raising the minimum wage, research by Larry Bartels finds that only 40% of the wealthiest Americans do. When combined with research by Martin Gilens and Kay Lehman Schlozman showing how the wealthiest Americans have a disparate voice in public policy affairs we begin to see why the minimum wage has yet to gain traction: class interests, not economics are driving the debate.

If Republicans are serious about reducing inequality and increasing upward mobility without increasing deficits and killing jobs, the minimum wage is the way to go. Sadly, they have been co-opted by a donor class less interested in good policy than their own economic interests.

Originally published on Salon.