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DOD’s increasing reliance on brass is a sign of broader problems

October 6th, 2014

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The Pentagon is more top-heavy than ever before. How much does this bureaucratic bloat cost taxpayers? The Pentagon has no idea, and neither does the Government Accountability Office. Pentagon officials know they need more generals and admirals, they just can’t tell you why. Those are the conclusions from a GAO report released earlier this month.

In 2011, I testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee and explained the problem, which I dubbed Star Creep—the Pentagon’s propensity to have generals and admirals (also known as Generals and Flag Officers, or GFO) fill positions once performed by lower-ranking officers. This has resulted in an unprecedentedly high ratio of generals and admirals to the troops they command.

Third Way has repeatedly shown how this hinders military effectiveness and wastes money. The GAO study corroborated many of our findings, including:

  • The number of generals and admirals increased by 8 percent from 2001 to 2013, while the enlisted ranks shrank by 2 percent;
  • “The ratios of enlisted to non-GFO officers and enlisted to GFOs are both at their lowest levels since prior to 2001 (5:1 and 1,200:1, respectively).”

Unfortunately, the study could not answer the burning question that we at Third Way and many members of Congress have: How much has this increasing top-heaviness at the Department of Defense cost American taxpayers? Reps. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) have all introduced legislation to combat Star Creep, but we still don’t have a full cost estimate.

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‘Meh’ Economy Muddies Mid-Term Election Picture

October 3rd, 2014

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It’s the “meh” economy, stupid. 2014 is not a boom year or a bust year. It’s just “meh.”

That’s why President Obama chose his words carefully when he talked about the economy in his CBS 60 Minutes interview last week. “Ronald Reagan used to ask the question, ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ In this case, are you better off than you were six [years ago]?” the president said. “The answer is, the country is definitely better off than we were when I came into office.”

Notice that Obama said “the country” is better off. He didn’t say “You’re better off.”

He is right. “The country” is clearly better off. The official unemployment rate has dropped below 6 percent, the lowest level since July 2008, before the Great Recession. Productivity is rising. The economic growth rate for the second quarter was a robust 4.6 percent. And with tax revenues increasing, the federal budget deficit is lower.

“The United States has put more people back to work than Europe, Japan and every other advanced economy combined,” Obama said at Northwestern University Thursday. That’s true. But it won’t do him much good politically. How many American voters will say, “We’re doing better than the Japanese! Woo-hoo!”

President Obama didn’t dare say, “You’ve never had it so good,” because he would have been laughed off the stage. What he did say was, “Our broader economy in the aggregate has come a long way, but the gains of recovery aren’t yet broadly shared.”

That’s also true. Only the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans have seen solid gains in income. The vast majority have not experienced any improvement, and many are facing wage stagnation and declining incomes. President Obama’s argument is that he has policies to help lower-income workers, but congressional Republicans have stubbornly blocked them: a higher minimum wage, equal pay for women, more infrastructure spending. Obama said in his speech that, while he himself is not running this year, “these policies are on the ballot—every single one of them.”

Since 1974, polltakers have been asking Americans, “How well do you think things are going in the country today?” It’s a pretty good indicator of how people see the economy—and how it affects their vote.

When the number who say things are going well is more than 60 percent, it’s a boom year. Incumbents do well at the polls. For instance:

  • 1984, when Reagan declared “Morning in America” and got re-elected (74 percent said things were going well)
  • 1988, when Vice President George H.W. Bush was elected as “Reagan’s third term” (70 percent)
  • 1996, when Clinton won a second term (67 percent)
  • 2000, when Vice President Al Gore got 540,000 more votes than George W. Bush but didn’t quite make it in the electoral college (79 percent)

When the number who say things are going well dips below 40 percent, it’s a bust year. Incumbents do poorly. Like:

  • 1980, when Jimmy Carter got fired (32 percent said things were going well)
  • 1992, when the first President Bush was laid off (35 percent)
  • 2008, the financial crisis (16 percent, the lowest figure ever)

How many Americans people think things are going well in the country now? Answer: 50 percent, according to a CNN poll. That’s a lot better than 2008, when Obama was elected. It’s even better than 2012, when Obama got re-elected (40 percent). But it’s not exactly a boom. Fifty percent is “meh.”

The “meh” economy is dampening enthusiasm for Democrats among the party’s core constituencies: low-income Americans, minorities, young people and single women. If Democrats are unenthusiastic, Republicans are in a rage. They can’t wait to vote because Obama’s policies have been far more liberal than they can tolerate. Obamacare, for instance, is not a top issue to most voters this year, as it was in 2010. But it is at the core of seething resentment among Republicans.

Democratic candidates are still competitive in many states because they are running hard on social issues, especially women’s rights. The emergence of the New America—young people, educated professionals, single and working women, gays, Latinos and voters with no religious affiliation—has enabled Democrats to use social issues to bludgeon their Republican opponents, just as Republicans used to do to Democrats. Those issues may rally Democrats the same way hatred of President Obama rallies Republicans.

Meanwhile Republican candidates are trying to replicate their surprise victory in the 2002 midterms, when terrorism was at the top of the agenda. Once again, we are hearing charges that Democrats are “soft on terrorism.”

In a “meh” economy, candidates rely on other issues to drive the vote. To quote the wisdom of the late Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna, “It just goes to show you, it’s always something. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”

This piece was originally published via The Huffington Post.

Young Teachers Deserve Retirement Protections, Too

September 24th, 2014

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How does it feel to lose $11,000 and know you’ll never get it back? This past week I discovered that I lost just that amount in retirement savings because like roughly half of America’s young teachers, I taught for fewer than five years.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, made a startling admission on a recent segment of “Morning Joe.” She said fighting teacher tenure laws was pointless because most teachers in American classrooms today have less than two years of teaching experience. While that figure is a slight exaggeration toward the low end, Weingarten is right in recognizing that the teaching profession looks drastically different — and newer — from before.

Despite this, most teachers still find themselves paying into a pension system that is a relic left from a time when educators stayed in the same job in the same place for an entire career. Teachers in most states receive defined benefit pensions that are based on a backloaded formula that factors in salary and years of service: teachers receive minimal benefits in their early years, but are rewarded quickly and heavily as they near retirement age. The rules of these defined benefit plans reward longevity and punish mobility — even mobility within the profession between school districts or states. It works if you stay in one place and keep teaching, but doesn’t if you switch careers or move out of state, which is what I did.

When I left a Los Angeles Unified School District classroom after three years and moved to Washington, D.C., I learned that three years of employer contributions to my retirement became three years of donations to someone else’s. Since California requires five years of teaching to vest in a pension (19 states require 10 years), I was only entitled to recoup the 8 percent annual contribution that was deducted from my paycheck each pay period. I was forced to cede back to the pension program the 8.25 percent of annual contributions that were made — ostensibly on my behalf by my employer — an amount totaling more than $11,000. Invested very conservatively, this money would be worth at least $35,000 when I get ready to retire one day — but realistically several times that based on historical returns or what state pension funds expect to earn.

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A Promising New Approach on Assault Weapons

September 12th, 2014

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Just four months after 20 students and six teachers were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School with an AR-15-style Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle, 60 Senators voted down an amendment to ban assault weapons. It was a heartbreaking moment for many of us. For decades, advocates in the gun safety movement have held up the assault weapons ban as a standard, the marker by which they measure any progress. And it was the first piece of legislation most Americans called to mind in the days after Sandy Hook—it seemed unimaginable that in less than 5 minutes, 154 bullets were fired and 26 innocents were left dead. But if in the wake of one of the worst mass shootings in American history, an assault weapon ban was still out of reach, what does that say about its future? After all, no one thinks the Senate is going to get any bluer after the elections in November.

It’s difficult to acknowledge that an assault weapons ban can’t pass anytime soon—in fact, to many it could feel akin to admitting defeat. But today, the Center for American Progress (CAP) courageously released a new report that did just that, and by doing so, they have reframed the debate, turning attention to a whole new set of policies that have an exponentially greater chance of enactment and would greatly reduce gun violence—including violence perpetrated by assault weapons. The report, Assault Weapons Revisited: Policy Options for Regulating Rifles, Shotguns, and Other Firearms 20 Years After the Passage of the Assault Weapons Ban, recognizes the limits of our current politics, but instead of conceding the issue, it offers a smart new framework for regulating some of the most dangerous guns in America. The current political impracticality of a ban does nothing to diminish widespread support for other gun safety policies that can save lives if we approach the problem differently, and they offer 6 specific ways to do so:

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No One Likes a Frontrunner

August 21st, 2014

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“No one likes a frontrunner, especially Democrats” a grassroots activist at Netroots Nation told Politico. That’s certainly true. Remember John Glenn in 1984? Howard Dean in 2004? Hillary Clinton in 2008?

It’s Republicans who have a tradition of nominating whoever is next in line. Every Republican presidential nominee since Barry Goldwater had run for President or vice president before. With one exception–George W. Bush. But his name was Bush, so he got a pass. Democrats have a tradition of plucking candidates out of obscurity: George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama.

If Hillary Clinton runs in 2016, she may defy the Democratic tradition. She is the prohibitive frontrunner, at least in the polls. No one else comes close. But will she really coast to the nomination? It looks more and more likely that Clinton will be seriously challenged from the left, by a candidate TBD.

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Why not growth?

August 4th, 2014

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Democrats’ intense focus on income inequality is understandable, but why not the same obsession over economic growth?

From 2001 to 2013, a span of thirteen years, average annual growth in the United States came out to a lumbering 1.8 percent. That is half the average annual growth rate we experienced from 1950 to 2000 —a period during which the middle class shined and the poverty rate declined.

Yes, the Great Recession contributed to substandard growth rates, but since 2001, the U.S. economy has exceeded 3 percent growth only twice. In the half century prior, we surpassed 3 percent growth per year 34 times. What was once “normal” growth is now a rarity.

Economists predict that America’s future growth rate will settle somewhere between mediocre and sickly. The Congressional Budget Office projects an average of 2.5 percent annual growth over the next ten years, while PricewaterhouseCoopers projects an average of 2.4 percent growth through 2020. Middling growth like that just won’t make an appreciable difference in the lives of average working people.

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