Robert Reich

Public Debt and Economic Growth

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In the election of 1952 my father voted for Dwight Eisenhower. When I asked him why he explained that “FDR’s debt” was still burdening the economy—and that I and my children and my grandchildren would be paying it down for as long as we lived. I was only six years old and had no idea what a “debt” was, let alone FDR’s. But I had nightmares about it for weeks. Yet as the years went by my father stopped talking about “FDR’s debt,” and since I was old enough to know something about economics I never worried about it. My children have never once mentioned FDR’s debt. My four-year-old grandchild hasn’t uttered a single word about it. By the end of World War II, the national debt was 120 percent of the entire economy. But by the mid-1950s, it was half that. Why did it shrink? Not because the nation stopped spending. We had a Korean War, a Cold War, we rebuilt Germany and Japan, sent our GI’s to college and helped them buy homes, expanded education at all levels, and began constructing the...

The Xenophobe Party

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The xenophobia has already begun. Senator Rand Paul in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid today urged him to reconsider immigration legislation because of the bombings in Boston. “The facts emerging in the Boston Marathon bombing have exposed a weakness in our current system,” Paul writes. “If we don’t use this debate as an opportunity to fix flaws in our current system, flaws made even more evident last week, then we will not be doing our jobs.” Senator Chuck Grassley, senior Republican senator on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is responsible for an immigration reform bill, is using much the same language—suggesting that the investigation of two alleged Boston attackers will “help shed light on the weaknesses of our system.” Can we just get a grip? Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a naturalized American citizen. He came to the United States when he was nine years old. He attended the public schools of Cambridge, Massachusetts, not far from where I once lived. Immigration reform...

Bi-Partisanship We Don’t Need

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John Boehner, Speaker of the House, revealed why it’s politically naive for the president to offer up cuts in Social Security in the hope of getting Republicans to close some tax loopholes for the rich. “If the President believes these modest entitlement savings are needed to help shore up these programs, there’s no reason they should be held hostage for more tax hikes,” Boehner said in a statement released Friday. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor agreed. He said on CNBC he didn’t understand “why we just don’t see the White House come forward and do the things that we agree on” such as cutting Social Security, without additional tax increases. Get it? The Republican leadership is already salivating over the president’s proposed Social Security cut. They’ve been wanting to cut Social Security for years. But they won’t agree to close tax loopholes for the rich. They’re already characterizing the president’s plan as a way to “save” Social Security—even though the cuts would undermine it...

Why the AFL-CIO Is Embracing Immigration Reform

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Flickr/Old Shoe Woman Their agreement is very preliminary and hasn’t yet even been blessed by the so-called Gang of Eight Senators working on immigration reform, but the mere fact that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue agreed on anything is remarkable. The question is whether it’s a good deal for American workers. It is, and I’ll explain why in a moment. Under the agreement (arrived at last weekend) a limited number of temporary visas would be issued to foreign workers in low-skilled occupations, who could thereafter petition to become American citizens. The agreement is an important step toward a comprehensive immigration reform package to be introduced in the Senate later this month. Disagreement over allowing in low-skilled workers helped derail immigration reform in 2007. The unions don’t want foreign workers to take jobs away from Americans or depress American wages, while business groups obviously want the lowest-priced workers...

Why Politicians Aren't Sensitive to Public Opinion on the Economy

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Flickr/Alex E. Proimos Who says American politics is gridlocked? A tidal wave of politicians from both sides of the aisle who just a few years ago opposed same-sex marriage are now coming around to support it. Even if the Supreme Court were decide to do nothing about California’s Proposition 8 or DOMA, it would seem only matter of time before both were repealed. A significant number of elected officials who had been against allowing undocumented immigrants to become American citizens is now talking about “charting a path” for them; a bipartisan group of senators is expected to present a draft bill April 8. Even a few who were staunch gun advocates are now sounding more reasonable about background checks. It’s nice to think logic and reason are finally catching up with our elected representatives, but the real explanation for these changes of heart is more prosaic: public opinion. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll finds support for marriage equality at the highest in the ten...

Take Social Security and Medicare Off the Bargaining Table

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P rominent Democrats—including the president and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi—are openly suggesting that Medicare be means-tested and Social Security payments be reduced by applying a lower adjustment for inflation. This is even before they’ve started budget negotiations with Republicans—who still refuse to raise taxes on the rich, close tax loopholes the rich depend on (such as hedge-fund and private-equity managers’ “carried interest”), increase capital gains taxes on the wealthy, cap their tax deductions, or tax financial transactions. It’s not the first time Democrats have led with a compromise, but these particular pre-concessions are especially unwise. For over thirty years Republicans have pitted the middle class against the poor, preying on the frustrations and racial biases of average working people who can’t get ahead no matter how hard they try. In the Republican narrative, government takes from the hard-working middle and gives to the undeserving and dependent needy...

The Contest Over the Real Economic Problem

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“Our biggest problems over the next ten years are not deficits,” the president told House Republicans Wednesday, according to those who attended the meeting. The president needs to deliver the same message to the public, loudly and clearly. The biggest problems we face are unemployment, stagnant wages, slow growth, and widening inequality—not deficits. The major goal must be to get jobs and wages back, not balance the budget. Paul Ryan’s budget plan—essentially, the House Republican plan—is designed to lure the White House and Democrats, and the American public, into a debate over how to balance the federal budget in ten years, not over whether it’s worth doing. “This is an invitation,” Ryan explained when he unveiled the plan Tuesday. “Show us how to balance the budget. If you don’t like the way we’re proposing to balance our budget, how do you propose to balance the budget?” Until now the president has seemed all too willing to engage in that debate. His ongoing talk of a “grand...

Bull Market for Stocks, Bear Market for Workers

Flickr/Michael Aston
Today the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose above 14,270 — completely erasing its 54 percent loss between 2007 and 2009. The stock market is basically back to where it was in 2000, while corporate earnings have doubled since then. Yet the real median wage is now 8 percent below what it was in 2000, and unemployment remains sky-high. Why is the stock market doing so well, while most Americans are doing so poorly? Four reasons: First, productivity gains. Corporations have been investing in technology rather than their workers. They get tax credits and deductions for such investments; they get no such tax benefits for improving the skills of their employees. As a result, corporations can now do more with fewer people on their payrolls. That means higher profits. Second, high unemployment itself. Joblessness all but eliminates the bargaining power of most workers—allowing corporations to keep wages low. Public policies that might otherwise reduce unemployment—a new WPA or CCC to hire the...

Sequestration Nation and Remembering Robert Kennedy

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With the sequester now beginning, I find myself thinking about Robert F. Kennedy—and 46 years ago when I was an intern in his Senate office. 1967 was a difficult time for the nation. America was deeply split over civil rights and the Vietnam War. Many of our cities were burning. The war was escalating. But RFK was upbeat. He was also busy and intense—drafting legislation, lining up votes, speaking to the poor, inspiring the young. I was awed by his energy and optimism, and his overriding passion for social justice and the public good. (Within a few months he’d declare his intention to run for president. Within a year he’d be dead.) The nation is once again polarized, but I don’t hear our politicians talking about social justice or the public good. They’re talking instead about the budget deficit and sequestration. At bottom, though, the issue is still social justice. The austerity economics on which we’ve embarked is a cruel hoax—cruel because it hurts those who are already hurt the...

Trading The Blame Game for The Bully Pulpit

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The White House apparently believes the best way to strengthen its hand in the upcoming “sequester” showdown with Republicans is to tell Americans how awful the spending cuts will be and blame Republicans for them. It won’t work. These tactical messages are getting in the way of the larger truth, which the president must hammer home: The Republicans’ austerity and trickle-down economics are dangerous, bald-faced lies. Yes, the pending spending cuts will hurt. But even if some Americans begin to feel the pain when the cuts go into effect Friday, most won’t feel it for weeks or months, if ever. Half are cuts in the military, which will have a huge impact on jobs (the military is America’s only major jobs program), but the cuts will be felt mainly in states with large numbers of military contractors, and then only as those contractors shed employees. The other half are cuts in domestic discretionary spending, which will largely affect lower-income Americans. There will be sharp...

The No-Brainer Argument for $9 an Hour

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Raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 should be a no-brainer. Republicans say it will cause employers to shed jobs, but that’s baloney. Employers won’t outsource the jobs abroad or substitute machines for them because jobs at this low level of pay are all in the local personal-service sector (retail, restaurant, hotel, and so on), where employers pass on any small wage hikes to customers as pennies more on their bills. States that have a minimum wage closer to $9 than the current federal minimum don’t have higher rates of unemployment than do states still at the federal minimum. A mere $9 an hour translates into about $18,000 a year—still under the poverty line. When you add in the Earned Income Tax Credit and food stamps it’s possible to barely rise above poverty at this wage, but even the poverty line of about $23,000 understates the true cost of living in most areas of the country. Besides, the proposed increase would put more money into the hands of families that desperately...

The Return of the Balanced Budget Amendment

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S enate minority leader Mitch McConnell says Senate Republicans will unanimously support a balanced-budget amendment, to be unveiled Wednesday as the core of the GOP’s fiscal agenda. There’s no chance of passage so why are Republicans pushing it now? “Just because something may not pass doesn’t mean that the American people don’t expect us to stand up and be counted for the things that we believe in,” says McConnnell. The more honest explanation is that a fight over a balanced-budget amendment could get the GOP back on the same page—reuniting Republican government-haters with the Party’s fiscal conservatives. And it could change the subject away from social issues—women’s reproductive rights, immigration, gay marriage—that have split the Party and cost it many votes. It also gives the Party something to be for , in contrast to the upcoming fights in which its members will be voting against compromises to avoid the next fiscal cliff, continue funding the government, and raising the...

Jobs and Growth, Not Deficit Reduction

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C an we just keep things in perspective? On Tuesday, the President asked Republicans to join him in finding more spending cuts and revenues before the next fiscal cliff whacks the economy at the end of the month. Yet that same day, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the federal budget deficit will drop to 5.3 percent of the nation’s total output by the end of this year. This is roughly half what the deficit was relative to the size of the economy in 2009. It’s about the same share of the economy as it was when Bill Clinton became president in 1992. The deficit wasn’t a problem then, and it’s not an immediate problem now. Yes, the deficit becomes larger later in the decade. But that’s mainly due to the last-ditch fiscal cliff deal in December. By extending the Bush tax cuts for all but the top 2 percent of Americans and repealing the alternative minimum tax, that deal increased budget deficits by about $3 trillion above what the budget office projected last August. The real...

The Real Debate over Citizenship

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Flickr/Aaron Webb Voters lining the Courthouse Plaza in Arlington, VA. S ometimes we have a national conversation without realizing it. We talk about different aspects of the same larger issue without connecting the dots. That’s what’s happening now with regard to the meaning of American citizenship and the basic rights that come with it. On one side are those who think of citizenship as a matter of exclusion and privilege—of protecting the nation by keeping out those who are undesirable, and putting strict limits on who is allowed to exercise the full rights of citizenship. On the other are those who think of citizenship inclusively—as an ongoing process of helping people become full participants in America. One part of this conversation involves immigration. I’m not just referring the question of whether or how people living in the United States illegally can become citizens. (Courtesy of our fast-growing Latino population, 70 percent of whom voted for President Obama last November...

The First Progressive Revolution

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Exactly a century ago, on February 3, 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, authorizing a federal income tax. Congress turned it into a graduated tax, based on “capacity to pay.” It was among the signal victories of the progressive movement—the first constitutional amendment in 40 years (the first 10 had been included in the Bill of Rights, the 11th and 12th in 1789 and 1804, and three others in consequence of the Civil War), reflecting a great political transformation in America. The 1880s and 1890s had been the Gilded Age, the time of robber barons, when a small number controlled almost all the nation’s wealth as well as our democracy, when poverty had risen to record levels, and when it looked as though the country was destined to become a moneyed aristocracy. But almost without warning, progressives reversed the tide. Teddy Roosevelt became president in 1901, pledging to break up the giant trusts and end the reign of the “malefactors of great wealth.”...

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