Tag Archives: Republican

Congress Is Rich: Here’s Why It Matters

Congress is rich. The average net worth in Congress is a bit more than $6 million, while the median net worth is $1 million. To put that in context, $4 million in net worth is enough to put someone in the top 1 percent, and $660,000 is enough to put an individual in the top 10 percent. Meanwhile, the median family wealth for whites is $134,000 and for blacks is $11,000. Emerging political science research suggests that the implications of this class bias are profound and important.

Political scientists have long debated the importance of “descriptive representation” or “reflective democracy.” Reflective democracy means that representatives share salient characteristics with their constituents. Most political scientists now agree that reflective representation leads to better substantive representation: that the interests of constituents are being reflected by legislator choice.

It’s increasingly clear that descriptive representation matters, particularly as related to race and gender. Political Scientists Robert R. Preuhs and Eric Gonzalez Juenke findthat black and Hispanic legislators are more responsive to the interests of black and Hispanic constituents than white legislators, after controlling for party. Legislators of color also serve an important veto function — preventing laws from passing that would disproportionately harm communities of color. Daniel Butler and David Broockman findthat politicians are more responsive to letters from constituents of the same race. This is confirmed by a study that finds legislators that support voter ID laws are less likely to respond to inquiries from Latino constituents. Further, black legislators are also more likely to hire black staffers. In addition, Economist Ebonya Washington finds that having a daughter makes a congressperson more liberal, particularly on reproductive rights. Some studies suggest that female representatives are more likely to set an agenda around women’s issues.

Given this, should we worry that more than half of all members of the House of Representatives are millionaires? Further, while two-thirds of the population don’t have a college degree, only two House members (Robert Brady of Pennsylvania and Stephen Fincher of Tennessee) and one senator (outgoing Mark Begich of Alaska) lack one.

Nicholas Carnes of Duke University has recently taken up the question of how class affects votes. In a 2012 paper, he finds that “representative from working-class occupations exhibit more liberal economic preferences than other legislators, especially those from profit-oriented professions.” Other research has confirmed this. Christopher Witko and Sally Friedman find that “House members with business backgrounds have closer relationships with business interests… and demonstrate more probusiness roll call voting.”

While descriptive representation of women and people of color has increased dramatically, the descriptive representation of working-class people has remained stubbornly flat (see chart).

As Carnes writes,

If millionaires were a political party, that party would make up roughly 3 percent of American families, but it would have a super-majority in the Senate, a majority in the House, a majority on the Supreme Court and a man in the White House. If working-class Americans were a political party, that party would have made up more than half the country since the start of the 20th century. But legislators from that party (those who last worked in blue-collar jobs before entering politics) would never have held more than 2 percent of the seats in Congress.

Those data end in 1998, but Carnes maintains his own database using similar metrics that picks up again in the mid-2000s. He finds that the line has remained flat, or if anything declined. At the state and local level, the picture isn’t much better. According to theNational Council of State Legislators, the share of legislators who worked in business in a non-managerial position (i.e., workers) has declined from 4.4 percent in 1976 to 2.8 percent in 2007.

Carnes defines class by occupation, and although his main regression finds that high-income congresspeople are more economically conservative than other members, the results are not statistically significant and not as strong as the correlation with occupation. However, other studies suggest that certain votes certainly contain an income component. Michael Kraus and Bennett Callaghan find that rich members of the House are more likely to accept high levels of inequality than less rich members. The effect is particularly strong on Democrats (see chart).

In a recent study, political scientist Christian Grose finds that “members of Congress with more money invested in the stock market were more likely to vote to increase the debt limit, presumably in order to avoid a market crash.” John Griffin finds that wealthier legislators were more likely to cosponsor and vote for bills to repeal the estate tax. This held even after controlling for party affiliation, their views on other taxes and their constituent opinions. A Mother Jones investigation finds that the 10 richest members of Congress (a bipartisan group) all voted to extend the Bush tax cuts.

It is therefore clear that we need more workers in office, but what will the impact be for the gains of women and people of color? Carnes finds that we can have our cake and eat it too. Using the Local Elections in America Project (LEAP) database of 18,000 local and county elections in California, he finds that working-class candidates are less likelyto be white men that white-collar candidates (see chart).

At the federal level, Carnes finds that between 1999 and 2008,

the average male member of Congress spent about 1 percent of his labor precongressional career in working-class jobs, while the average female member spent about 3. The average white member spent an average of 1 percent of his career in working-class jobs, compared to 3 percent among the average black or Hispanic member and 5 percent among the average Asian member.

It is clear, then, that policies to increase working-class representation in Congress might also increase the representation of women and people of color. But what policies could do so? Carnes tells Salon that in yet unreleased research he finds that publicly financing elections can increase working-class representation.

This isn’t surprising. A study of New York City’s public financing scheme finds that it increased the class and racial diversity of political donors. Carnes also argues that recruiters need to do more to encourage working-class voters to run. In a recent paper with David Broockman, Melody Crowder-Meyer and Christopher Skovron, he finds that “party leaders exhibit some biases against blue-collar workers” which likely prevent many from running. Research on the lack of candidates of color has also found such biases.

Carnes tells Salon that another solution is programs like the AFL-CIO “Labor Candidate School,” which began in New Jersey but now exists in North Carolina, Oregon, Nevada, Maine, New Haven and New York City. The programs, which train politically savvy members to run for office, have a good success rate; 75 percent of those who run after going through the New Jersey program win their races. Carnes tells Salon he’ll be working on an effort in Durham next year. “I believe in the potential of this model so much, I’m going to try it out myself,” he says.

As the Democratic Party increasingly moves to the center to please an elite donor base, the last hope for action on economic inequality might be more blue-collar politicians.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

The Demise of the Left (and How to Revive It)

Although most polls indicate that Americans are putting the blame on Republicans for the government shutdown in terms of actual politics, the Republicans are winning. The government shutdown/debt ceiling is a quintessential example of the failure of leftism under both the Obama and Clinton administrations.

Obama has lost Waxman-Markey (climate change), Manchin-Toomey (gun control and the Gang of Eight (Immigration). Dodd-Frank (finance reform) has been dismantled and hasn’t even begun to correct the damage wrecked by Gramm-Leach-Bliley (which repealed Glass-Steagall) and the Commodities Modernization Act (deregulating derivatives).

Obama’s healthcare reform was supposed to include a public option, universal Medicaid expansion and exclude the Cadillac tax (which will hurt union workers who negotiated good healthcare plans). Ideally, of course, we would move to single-payer or socialized medicine, but this is America! We’re exceptional! In 2008 Obama mocked the idea of an individual mandate: “I mean, if a mandate was the solution, we can try that to solve homelessness by mandating everybody to buy a house.” His agenda has been so decimated that he’s literally having to pass of old moderate Republican ideas as genuine leftism, and he’s still being called a commie!

Obama has been negotiating with sociopaths for the last five years. He came in ready to bargain, but has instead met a party immune to compromise. Obama has gained almost nil in revenue, while spending has been cut drastically (and foolishly). Now, he’s being asked to give up his major (only?) legislative victory for absolutely nothing in return. In fact, the Democrats position right now is to beg for a “clean-CR” that would cut spending below Paul Ryan’s first budget and basically to the level he proposed for 2014. That’s right, the current Democratic position is to cut funding roughly to the level of what the psychotic Rand Acolyte/Republican “idea” man is asking for. Dear readers, let me restate this one more time. The Democratic position right now is to keep in place a law based around a Republican idea and cut spending below what Republicans wanted in 2010.

The Republican quest to cut spending and taxes while not actually doing anything hasn’t been stalled by the fact that they lost the presidency, the senate and got fewer votes in the House than the Democrats. They’ve so dramatically shifted the conversation that they are still winning.

The truth is, Republicans have been winning since the 80s and haven’t stopped. The Clinton/Obama domestic agenda is right of Nixon/Eisenhower. There is no left in America. Democrats would qualify as center-right in any other country, while the Republicans would constitute a fringe right-wing nationalist party that generally takes in 10% of unemployed alcoholic racists with free time to come up with crazy conspiracy theories. The Tea Party patriots would be bunkered underground prepping for a coming apocalypse. In America, they are a major national party, holding the government hostage for even more draconian spending cuts (and maybe some tax giveaways for their rich friends). As long as they keep gerrymandering districts, make sure blacks don’t get to vote and take a never-compromise position, Republicans will keep winning.

The left in America needs revival, and there is certainly hope. Young people, according to Pew Research Center, actually have a slightly positive view of socialism (+3) and a slightly negative view of capitalism (-1). Poor Americans also grown disenchanted with capitalism (-8), as have blacks (-10) and hispanics (-23). There is a large untapped reserve of populist fervor that will quickly turn to disillusionment as the corporate and finance controlled neo-liberal arm of the Democratic party fails to address the issues that matter to them: environmental degradation, rampant inequality, the rise of greed and the lack of empathy in our society.

But all of this populist energy will remain under the surface as long as money drives the political system, there is no way for a leftist movement to foment – there will be no Koch-like donors supporting an anti-corporate pro-environment movement. To quote Marx: “The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of their dominance.”

Martin Giles and Larry Bartels have both done extensive research on the political system’s responsiveness to poor voters. The results are not good. In 2005, Larry Bartels examined how responsive Senators were in the 101st, 102nd and 103rd congress to the preferences of various constituents. His findings are summarized in the chart below.

While neither party is particularly responsive to the needs of poor Americans (the number is negative, meaning that if poor Americans desire the policy, it’s actually less likely to happen), Democrats are marginally better than Republicans at responding to the desires of the middle class. Even after controlling for political knowledge and voting behaviour, the results held, indicating that wealth, not education or political activism, is what makes politicians respond. Martin Giles has developed such research into a book, Affluence and Influence, which records similar findings.

Frederick Solt researched political responsiveness and participation internationally and found that higher levels of inequality decreased voter turnout and narrowed the political discussion, with poor and middle class voters becoming disenchanted.

The best way to revive the left is to focus on two key issues: economic equality and political access. Economic equality, while it garners lip from the left has never been the center of a real legislative agenda since the Great Society. That’s because, although improving access to education and providing universal health care are all small steps towards alleviating inequality, the only way to truly make a difference would be a stronger, more vibrant union movement, an increased minimum wage and higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

Economists Steve Temin and Peter Levy argue in Inequality and Institutions in 20th Century America that the decline in unions was an institutional phenomenon, one driven by politics, not an inevitable consequence of the changing economy. David Blanchflower and Richard B. Freeman point to Canada as a country where labor has remained strong because of favorable public policy:

Canadian labor law substantially limits what management can do to oppose unions… Canada does not permit management to engage in the massive union prevention campaigns that pervade the United States… and the two major provinces, Ontario and Quebec, have gone a long way to protect unions as institutions.

This decline in unions has been disastrous for American workers. Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld find that, “the decline in organized labor explains a fifth to a third of the growth in inequality—an effect comparable to the growing stratification of wages by education.” There is a correlation between union representation and inequality within the U.S. and internationally.

The effort to end inequality can also be aided by higher levels of redistributionary taxes. U.S. tax rates are low by international standards and research from Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez shows how progressivity has declined in the U.S. tax system.

Research suggests that tax rates have to be around 60 – 70% before there is any impact on economic growth (the highest marginal tax bracket right now is 40%). The U.S. could easily increase tax rates and distribute more money downward, thereby reducing inequality. Increasing the minimum wage would also put downward pressure on inequality and give workers more dignity.

The second aim of the left will be even tougher than alleviating inequality: getting money out of politics. The Roberts court has dealt numerous blows to the U.S. campaign finance regime and may again this year. A system of stricter campaign finance would free candidates from the demands of corporations and the financial sector. Part of the reason Democrats are wary of limiting corporate power and the influence of finance may be the fact that their campaigns are bankrolled by these donors. Powerful corporate lobby groups like ALEC, the Chamber of Commerce and the various “astroturf” groups push the domestic agenda to the right.

With a rigorous system of campaign finance reform, a reinvigorated left would actually have a chance to mobilize. This recovery has been drastically unequal: Emmanuel Saez finds that 93% of the gains over the past 2 years have accrued to the richest 1 percent of Americans. There’s certainly room for a new left movement, the question is whether it will happen.