“Inequality isn’t the trade-off for economic growth; rather, it’s both the cause and the symptom of slower growth.”
a motto of the Roosevelt Institute
Roosevelt was designed to be a place, independent of the party establishment, to unite all of these factions under the banner of long-term, coherent economic thinking. Had such a movement existed in 2008, it might have seized on the financial crisis as an opportunity for structural economic reform. . . the system went right back to doing exactly what it did before: allowing the extraordinary concentration of power in the hands of the few to dominate the prospects of the many.
Roosevelt and its allies believe that the crisis could have been an occasion — unseen since the New Deal — for the diffusion of authority, large-scale infrastructural investment, attention to low-wage growth and relief for the plight of overextended homeowners rather than banks. But that opportunity passed by because, in the absence of a strong, organized countervailing force, responsibility for the bailout simply defaulted to the claque of Citigroup veterans and sympathizers that had administered Democratic economic policy for what was now a full generation. . .
With all this resentment of bankers, a news consumer might have thought the enthusiasm in this milieu — that is, all the groups that resisted the legacy of deregulated, race-neutral, free-market bipartisanship — would accrue to Bernie Sanders. But Sanders in fact came up only rarely in my conversations with them, usually in praise of the sincerity of his message. The common view of the Democratic contest was that Sanders did a great service in pushing Clinton to the left. . .
The Roosevelt coalition agreed by and large with the direction of Sanders’s economic program, but they regretted the crudeness of his exposition. They understood, for example, the appeal of a call to break up the banks but found greater sophistication in Clinton’s proposals to regulate “shadow banking.” They wished his advisers had been more careful with the numbers. And the personal iconoclasm and moral purity of the Sanders campaign didn’t lend themselves to governance. . .
. . . The central preoccupation for Wong, and for Silvers and for Warren, was to demonstrate that it was the courageous thing, not the cautious one, that would capture the preponderance of the electorate.
. . . the most significant liberal think tank in recent years has been the Center for American Progress, founded in 2003 by the former Bill Clinton chief of staff (and current Hillary Clinton campaign chair) John Podesta as his party’s answer to the conservative Heritage Foundation. . . When Obama was elected, roughly a third of CAP’s staff went into his administration. CAP was founded in an era when few liberals were of the opinion that the system itself was broken: If you just found slightly better Democrats, elected them to office and put smarter policies in their hands, they believed, the country would return to the prosperity of the 1990s. Liberal Washington was not equipped, when the financial crisis broke, to tender a holistic analysis of what was ailing the economy. . .
In 2009, a political scientist named Andrew Rich, known for writing about the “war of ideas,” was drafted to reinvent the Roosevelt Institute as a place for the radical thinking that postcrisis politics seemed to require. . . Rich believed that if you weren’t in Washington, and you weren’t beholden to the party apparatus, and if you got the right people — people who were too idiosyncratic or rough-hewn for academia, or academics who wanted to be politically relevant but needed help with finding an audience for their work — you could create a new kind of institution on a looser, livelier model. . .
. . . Rich brought on Stiglitz and Mike Konczal, whose pseudonymous financial-crisis blog had a cult following among progressives. In 2010, the organization held a conference that prominently featured Elizabeth Warren, then early in her career as a public figure. . .
Rewriting the Rules got funding from the Ford Foundation, whose decision last year to refocus around the issue of inequality was influenced by Roosevelt, and whose president, Darren Walker [see April 10, 2016 blog: Why Giving Back Isn’t Enough] effused to me about Wong as an “incandescent leader” for the progressive movement. While written by Stiglitz, the paper was worked out in consultation with labor officials, academics, congressional staff members and — unusually for a think tank — advocates from places like Color of Change, Naral and the Black Civic Engagement Fund.
The report lays out a stark narrative about the American economy as it exists today. Inequality, it maintains, is a function not of economic laws but of the preferences awarded to the powerful to extract rents — to exploit people who have little choice — especially on necessary goods like housing and health care. . . Roosevelt stressed that this vision was about the way that power and prejudice created not only distorted markets but also nonfunctional ones. The economy has stalled because too much wealth is being generated in nonproductive activity, hoarded to preserve for the rich all the things government no longer provides. The long-run situation, as Wong put it to me once, is America as “a fear-catalyzed gated community for a privileged few, and a violent, racially hostile, ‘Lord of the Flies’ race to the bottom for the rest of us.”. . .
To be continued