Policy Shop

Policy as if people mattered

Why Should Government Respond Differently to Natural vs. Economic Disasters?


With millions of Americans struggling to recover from Sandy, few people question that government has a central role to play in rebuilding battered communities in New Jersey and other states.

Natural disasters are often highpoint moments for the public sector, reminding us of the power of common institutions that allow citizens to help each other in times of need. The residents, say, of sunny Los Angeles needn't do anything special at this moment, because they have already been doing something—helping fund FEMA with their tax dollars so that it has the capacity to respond to unexpected events like a "Frankenstorm."

Extreme Partisanship: Preserver of our Democracy

(Flickr/Austen Hufford)

It is widely assumed that partisanship, particularly of the rabid variety, is detrimental to the political process and harms our democracy. I believe this is naive and not borne out by the evidence. Partisanship is responsible for the “dysfunction of Washington,” to use the current popular pejorative, and polls have recorded as much as 80% of the electorate dissatisfied with Congress. This figure is not easily obtained.

According a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, the partisan gap has almost doubled since George W. Bush’s presidency through Barak Obama’s. America is becoming more partisan, if that is possible. Incumbent senators and congressmen have worked extremely hard for this and have forged a difficult alliance to reach this goal. This alliance is often overlooked by ideologues, but obviously, though appearing tacit, is the stabilizing influence in our political process.

The Subversion of Direct Democracy

(Flickr/Neon Tommy)

A few months ago, I attended a large political gathering. There, a gentleman was handing out flyers which read, “Abolish the Congress and replace it with direct citizen voting by phone or television.” A few days later, a newly-arrived transplant to Southern California wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times. He said he was mystified by California’s method of writing and enacting laws by ballot initiative. He wondered what happened to the concept of laws being written by elected legislators. The flyer and the letter represent polar opposite views about direct versus representative democracy.

Direct Democracy, for Billionaires


Over a century ago, progressive reformers were deeply worried about how wealthy interests had hijacked American politics populating state legislatures with cronies who did as they were told and otherwise steamrolled the will of the people.

To level the playing field, reformers worked to create mechanisms for direct democracy through state referendum and ballot initiatives, allowing voters to bypass corrupted political systems.

Why Schumer Is (Mostly) Right on Taxes

(Pete Labrozzi/Flickr)

Senator Schumer offered a much needed intervention in the tax debate in a speech on Tuesday. What Schumer said is that revenue-neutral tax reform was a fantasy and that any big Congressional deal on tax reform had to include higher rates on the wealthy, as well as more revenue overall.

Yes and yes to both points.

As Schumer pointed out, one major distortion in today's tax code that needs to be fixed is its favorable treatment of the wealthy, particularly through the historically low rate of taxes on capital gains—the source of much income for the wealthiest Americans:

Devolving Federal Programs to the States Means Cutting Them


On Tuesday, the Pew Center on the States released a summary of the differences between the presidential candidates on key issues affecting the states. The summary reflects Governor Romney’s preference for devolving to the states responsibility for critical policy matters.  

Among other things he would replace the Affordable Care Act with state plans, and convert Medicaid and federal job training programs into block grants. 

Invasion of the Climate Deniers


When it comes to climate change, there is one area in which the United States leads all other nations: Our media gives more time and attention to climate deniers than other countries. A recent study from researchers at Oxford University and Birkbeck College took a look at the level of climate skepticism in media coverage in the United States, Brazil, China, France, India, and the United Kingdom.

Good News For Grads in the Jobs Report

(Demos DataByte)

While the September jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics provided plenty of political ammunition, it remains an ambiguous signal about the current labor market.

Young people, who are at a disadvantage when hiring is slack, tend to fare worse in such good news/bad news situations. They confront the same challenges as the working population overall, but are not as well-positioned to endure them. In this case those obstacles include weak growth, persistent rates of long-term unemployment, and a substantial rise in workers holding part-time positions because they cannot find the full-time work they need.

Hey! Hey! Government Is Hiring Again

(Demos DataByte)

Here's one very interesting piece of news from today's jobs report: The public sector has stopped firing people and started hiring. According to the report, government at all levels has added 68,000 workers in the past three months.

Obama and Romney: What About Inequality?


Just a year ago, Occupy Wall Street commanded attention from the media and politicians alike. Yet last night the central concern of that social movement—one shared by a majority of Americans—wasn't even mentioned as both candidates and the moderator ducked the problem of economic inequality. 

Yes, Obama did say several times that America does best when the middle class is growing. But he never overtly talked about the growing chasm of income and wealth—or how a big reason that ordinary people are not doing so well is because so much new prosperity created in today's economy gets channeled upward to a tiny sliver of the population.

Finally! Schneiderman Goes After JP Morgan Chase

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, with the support of the mortgage task force formed by the Obama administration last January and the Justice Department, has commenced the long overdue prosecution of the Big Banks for their role in triggering the financial crisis of 2008. (That is not a typo—the Justice Department has finally moved against the Big Banks.)

Barry Commoner's Legacy

(TIME Magazine)

Yesterday brought the sad news that noted environmental advocate and scholar, Barry Commoner, had passed away. As pointed out in the many tributes to his life and achievements, Commoner was one of the founders of modern environmentalism and embraced a more complex, holistic view of environmental issues. Commoner believed in addressing multiple issues, such as racism, sexism, war, and—most importantly—the failings of capitalism at the same time as environmentalism because they were, and still are, all related issues of a larger central problem.

Commoner had four informal rules of ecology:

Diane Ravitch on the "Effort to Destroy Public Ed"

(Flickr/Kevin Lock)

When Diane Ravitch changed her mind about education reform, she became one of the leading critics of a movement that dominates American policy. For the most part, both Democrats and Republicans now push to make school systems resemble economic markets. They want fewer teacher protections, more testing, and more charter schools for parents to choose from. President Barack Obama's Department of Education, headed by education reformer Arne Duncan, shares many policy goals with those of George W. Bush's administration. Ravitch herself was once part of the movement, promoting student assessments and helping to create voluntary academic standards. After serving as assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush, she held positions at the pro-school-reform movement Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and was a member of the Koret Task Force at Stanford's Hoover Institution, which focuses on school choice and "accountability." But in 2009, Ravitch left both positions and wrote a book announcing her move to the other side of the debate.

Your Credit Score Could Be A Fake

Say you want to buy a house or a car and you need a loan to do it. You do what every personal finance site recommends and obtain a free copy of your credit report from annualcreditreport.com.

Then, urged on by the ads from TransUnion, Equifax, or Experian—the “big three” credit reporting firms that compile the reports—you opt for not only the free report but also shell out for what the companies promise is your actual three-digit credit score. A number! Now, you may think, I know what the auto lenders and banks making mortgages really think of me. I have a sense of what rates I qualify for and what type of car or home I can afford.

Jerry Perenchio: California's Sheldon Adelson

(AP Photo)

While Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers have become emblematic of outside spending at the national level, it is local outside spending that could have the greatest impact on policy.

Jerry Perenchio is California's homegrown Sheldon Adelson, and he's using his fortune to decide the future of the nation's most populous state. California's income inequality is among the worst in the country. And as the ongoing fight over Proposition 30 shows, that often translates into political inequality.