Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email. FDR Set the Terms for Labor Executive Orders (Reuters) Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren praises President Obama for following FDR’s path with his recent executive order raising the minimum wage for federally contracted workers.. This Is How You Fix Ailing Public Pensions (Time) Rana Foroohar draws

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Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email. Worst. President. Ever. (All In With Chris Hayes) In honor of Presidents’ Day, Chris Hayes invites Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren to discuss his pick for the worst: Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s predecessor during the Great Depression. The Silicon Valley Labor Scandals Prove Minimum Wage

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Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email. The President and Inequality (All In with Chris Hayes) Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow and Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz discusses the place of inequality in this week’s State of the Union address, and the deeper question of why we don’t implement the economic policies that would absolutely

Decades after FDR called for a national minimum wage, the debate continues — and his arguments for it still ring true. We have not only seen minimum wage and maximum hour provisions prove their worth economically and socially under government auspices in 1933, 1934 and 1935, but the people of this country, by an overwhelming

The rise of a new progressive organizing is cause to believe that economic reform and a shift toward broadly shared prosperity are within reach. Thomas Edsall, who now is capping off his long career writing insightfully about the relationship between economics and public opinion as a blogger for The New York Times, concluded a piece

Rortybomb’s Best of 2013

2013. The year we won the argument but lost the war. It’s better than losing both the arguments and the war, I suppose.

2013 brought us a fiscal deficit that closed far too fast, NGDP growth and inflation falling compared to previous years, and unemployment completely falling off the political radar at the same moment the argument that the deficit was a worry collapsed. Before there were elaborate arguments about how the unemployed were this or that, or uncertainty was causing the one thing and the other. Now it’s just quiet out there, yet the economy remains below potential. The collapse of the counter-Keynesian position didn’t revitalize a position of aggressive action; it just left a void.

But rortybomb enterprises still marches forward. Here are the top posts from this blog for 2013:

1-2) My initial writeup of the work of Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin’s critical dismantling of the Reinhart and Rogoff argument for austerity crashed this website shortly after it went up. That, and the follow-up from Arin Dube arguing that the causation was certainly backwards, are two of the most read things I’ve been involved with, and I’m honored to have played a role in dismantling this argument. A nice reminder that these things matter and blogs matter too; perhaps some people in Europe aren’t being pummeled into dust as a result of this place.

3) I wrote a piece taking apart what kind of problem the ACA botched roll-out is for (neo)liberalism, that got people aruging about what kinds of social insurance we want out there.

4) I discussed the minimum wage, which I’ll be doing much more of in 2014, throwing down the argument that it forms an important complement to various tax-based income support measures like the EITC.

5) I also wrote about Samuel Freeman’s argument that We Already Tried Libertarianism – It Was Called Feudalism. The term feudalism was chosen to be provocative, but the real concept is that it is anti-liberal in the traditional sense, and feeds on something darker, more pre-modern, than most people give it credit for.

Wonkblog: This year I wanted to write more regular columns at other venues, and was pretty successful at that goal. I contributed a weekly column to the Washington Post’s Wonkblog. My favorites, in case you missed them the first time around:

The arguments surrounding the Universal Basic Income. (I received several notes from people happy to see Gøsta Esping-Andersen name-dropped in the Washington Post.) Creating a theory of the state that went into the shutdown. What we get wrong when we describe the financial crisis. Bernanke versus austerity. The idea of public problems. Is a democratic surveillance state possible? Defending the 30 year mortgage and the Volcker Rule. We are teaching economics backwards. And an interview with Shelia Bair that was mentioned in the House by people trying, successfully, to rally House Democrats against dismantling Section 716 of Dodd-Frank.

In Other News: I also started writing some columns for The New Republic and Al-Jazeera America at the end of the year, which I’ll continue into 2014. I also wrote a review of Phillip Mirowski’s latest book for the New Inquiry, meaning I’ve completed the hat-trick of writing for TNI, Jacobin and Dissent in the past year and a half. I also co-edited a big report on the future of financial reform which I’m very proud of, and will continue to build out next year. And Thomas Edsall wrote an excellent overview of the arguments we’ve built here at rortybomb for the New York Times.

Here’s to a good 2014. There’s some exciting stuff already in the works.

Previous editions: 2012, 2011

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Everyone has been talking about the recent Larry Summers speech on secular stagnation, written up with force by Paul Krugman here. Gavyn Davies, in his own nice coverage, noted that the Q&A had an interesting exchange about fiscal stimulus between Bernanke and Summers, so I decided to write that up.

From the IMF video, starting around 1h 2m 15s:

I remember another course we had at MIT with Mr. Samuelson, who I think is a relative of yours [laughter], where he explains…why the real interest rate couldn’t be negative indefinitely. He said there was always the possibility of leveling a hill so that a locomotive could get to a destination [faster]…
If the real return is negative, first of all, monetary policy can get negative interest rates with positive inflation. But on the fiscal side, the return to public investment, as long as it’s real, as long as it’s above zero, would always be an approach. It would always be profitable at negative interest rates.
[…] If you think about it as a private investment, it requires that there are perfect property rights, that you can get the benefit of that through all of time, which is reasonable to suppose you don’t. If you think of it as a public investment, it’s sort of the point that there may be a case for what, in some ways of thinking, be a permanent fiscal expansion, where you are constantly undertaking projects of that kind. It is precisely how one should think of medium-term and long-term fiscal policy that the kind of argument that I made goes to, to a very substantial extent.
[…] if you generate inflation, you can have as negative of a real interest rate as you want. It’s often assumed, from that, that monetary policy can necessarily solve the problem alone. But that depends on the ability of pure monetary policy to achieve any desired inflation.
There’s no question… if you drop enough dollar bills from enough helicopters, you can get as much inflation as you want, but in the classic economic lexicon, that’s expansionary fiscal policy, because you are making a transfer. And we’ve done a lot of quantitative easing, and the inflation rate is not conspicuously higher than what it was before it started.
I would normally edit a transcript a bit more, but I wanted to make sure you saw that Summers has a triple hedge (“it’s sort of the point that there may be a case for what, in some ways of thinking”) before he says that we may need a permanent, or at least a permanent enough, fiscal expansion. This is a long way away from the “timely, targeted, and temporary” mantra Summer had for fiscal stimulus in 2008. Stimulus should still be very well targeted, but now temporary and perhaps even timely are up for grabs.
Of course, if we needed to expand government for our new era, we have a lot of projects, like fighting global warming and rationalizing our safety net with some kind of basic income, with which we could start. So we aren’t lacking for genuine investment opportunities. But would a serious and sustained expansion of the size of government be a necessary or sufficient condition for combating the issue of secular stagnation? I’m curious what everyone thinks and why.
I can imagine the steam coming out of Ryan Avent’s ears at Summers’s description of quantitative easing and the inflation rate (see Avent’s response to the Summers speech here). I will say that 11 months ago, when the Evans Rule and QE3 were announced, I thought there would be a small but reasonable chance that we’d experience anemic growth but above-trend inflation (say 2.25 percent). The question then was why people should be happy about this, and whether it would translate into wage growth. Instead, we have anemic growth and record-low inflation, and I don’t know how to explain that.
The old complaint was that Bernanke was targeting volumes instead of prices (I’ll buy so many bonds, but not set the 10 year interest rate at 1.75% and the mortgage rate at 3%), in part because he was afraid of failing at hitting a target and, perhaps, was afraid of the optics of it. But the one target he has gone for – 2% inflation – he hasn’t hit. I imagine that’s a big problem for bigger actions going forward.

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As Americans reject the extreme right wing at the polls, FDR’s vision of self-government may be on the rise again. Note: On Nov. 8-9, David Woolner and other leading thinkers will explore the past, present, and future of progressivism at a conference hosted by the Roosevelt Institute and the Clinton Institute for American Studies at

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email. Aides Debated Obama Health-Care Coverage Promise (WSJ) Colleen McCain Nelson, Peter Nicholas, and Carol E. Lee speak to Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch about the President’s assurance that people who liked their insurance would get to keep it. He says adding an asterisk for good

“This massive IT launch sure came in on time, under budget, and without headaches” is a statement that nobody has ever said. But even controlling for that, looks to be having a disastrous launch.

People are naturally asking about the practical and political implications of this disaster. Is it a problem for the Affordable Care Act as a whole, with its mixture of individual mandates and risk-pooling? Is it a political disaster for President Obama and the Democrats? Does this show us major problems in the way that government procures its contractors?

These are important questions, but some are asking a bigger one: is this a problem for liberalism as a political governance project? Does this rollout failure discredit the core goals of a liberal project, including that of a mixed economy, a regulatory state, and social insurance?

Conservatives in particular think this website has broad implications for liberalism as a philosophical and political project. I think it does, but for the exact opposite reasons: it highlights the problems inherent in the move to a neoliberal form of governance and social insurance, while demonstrating the superiorities in the older, New Deal form of liberalism. This point is floating out there, and it turns out to be a major problem for conservatives as well, so let’s make it clear and explicit here.

So what has gone wrong? People are still trying to figure this out. There are the general problems of doing too much with too little time and resources and rolling out a big final product rather than smaller incremental pieces. These are things that, while problematic, don’t particularly have a political story to tell.

However, four bigger problems jump out.

The first has to do with means-testing the program. The biggest front-end problem is that users, before they can register, must “cross a busy digital junction in which data are swapped among separate computer systems built or run by contractors.”

Why is that? It is because the government needs to determine how much of a coupon it’ll write each person to go and buy private insurance. Beyond the philosophical components of means-testing (what the philosopher Jonathan Wolff calls “shameful revelations), the actual process requires substantial coordination between multiple government agencies with very different infrastructures.

As the GAO notes, “the data hub is to verify an applicant’s Social Security number with the Social Security Administration (SSA), and to access the data from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that are needed to assess the applicant’s income, citizenship, and immigration status. The data hub is also expected to access information from the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), Department of Defense (DOD), Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and Peace Corps to enable exchanges to determine if an applicant is eligible for insurance coverage from other federal programs that would make them ineligible for income-based financial subsidies.”

Rather than just being an example of bureaucratic infighting, each of these pieces of information is necessary to determine how aggressively the government should subsidize the private insurance individuals will buy, and the entire process will stall and fall apart if one of these checks isn’t completed quickly.

This by itself might not be a problem; however, the second issue is that the means-testing is necessary to link individuals up with individual private insurers. As the Washington Post notes, the back-end problems are in part the result of the site being “designed to draw from the offerings of private insurers, each with their own computer systems, rates and offerings.” And though this may be getting better, a serious concern has been inaccurate data being transmitted to the insurance companies. Which is to say that the emphasis on creating a digital marketplace where individuals get means-tested and can then pick and choose among insurers requires syncing on both ends, which is a difficult process.

So what? A third issue, and a major reason this is freaking people out, is that the first two problems could introduce adverse selection, as only the most needy will wait, and wait, to take advantage of the programs. As Yuval Levin has emphasized, the “danger of a rapid adverse selection spiral is much more serious than they believed possible this summer.”

And the fourth and final issue is that the federal government has had to pick up so much slack from rebelling states that didn’t want to implement health care. The state-level exchanges that were actually implemented appear to be doing okay, or at least significantly better. But the general problem is that “More than 30 states refused to set up their own exchanges, requiring the federal government to vastly expand its project in unexpected ways.”

So this tells a story. Let’s refer to these features of social insurance, which are also playing a major role in the rollout problems, as “Category A.” Now, what would the opposite of this look like? Let’s define the opposite of this as “Category B” social insurance. And let’s take these two categories and chart them out:

What we often refer to as Category A can be viewed as a “neoliberal” approach to social insurance, heavy on private provisioning and means-testing. This term often obscures more than it helps, but think of it as a plan for reworking the entire logic of government to simply act as an enabler to market activities, with perhaps some coordinated charity to individuals most in need.

This contrasts with the Category B grouping, which we associate with the New Deal and the Great Society. This approach creates a universal floor so that individuals don’t experience basic welfare goods as commodities to buy and sell themselves. This is a continuum rather than a hard line, of course, but readers will note that Social Security and Medicare are more in Category B category rather than Category A. My man Franklin Delano Roosevelt may not have known about JavaScript and agile programming, but he knew a few things about the public provisioning of social insurance, and he realized the second category, while conceptually more work for the government, can eliminate a lot of unnecessary administrative problems.

Some of the more cartoony conservatives argue that this is a failure of liberalism because it is a failure of government planning, evidently confusing the concept of economic “central planning” with “the government makes a plan to do something.”

However, the smarter conservatives who are thinking several moves ahead (e.g. Ross Douthat) understand that this failed rollout is a significant problem for conservatives. Because if all the problems are driven by means-testing, state-level decisions and privatization of social insurance, the fact that the core conservative plan for social insurance is focused like a laser beam on means-testing, block-granting and privatization is a rather large problem. As Ezra Klein notes, “Paul Ryan’s health-care plan — and his Medicare plan — would also require the government to run online insurance marketplaces.” Additionally, the Medicaid expansion is working well where it is being implemented, and the ACA is perhaps even bending the cost curve of Medicare, the two paths forward that conservatives don’t want to take.

I’ll be discussing this more, but the choice between Category A and B above will characterize much of the political debate in the next decade. It’s important we get more sophisticated analysis of what has gone wrong with the ACA rollout to better appreciate how utilizing “the market” can be far more cumbersome and inefficient than the government just doing things itself.

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