The following is a conversation between Felicia Wong, President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: The Roosevelt Institute is a progressive American think tank, which exists to carry forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. And to better understand the role that such an institution plays in American society, as well as the policies and recommendations it is advocating for, it is a pleasure to have with us their President and CEO, Felicia Wong.
Good evening, Felicia, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Felicia: Thank you so much. Nice to be here!
Denver: The Roosevelt Institute was created in 1987. How did it all come together?
Felicia: The Roosevelt Institute as we currently know it was incorporated in the 1980s, but actually, Franklin Roosevelt started an organization to support the FDR Library, which is up in Hyde Park. Very beautiful; if you haven’t visited, you really should. And so, even in the late 1930s, the President recognized both the need for presidential libraries – he also started the National Archives – and he knew that you’d need some kind of philanthropic support for that. So, in some way, shape, or form, an entity dedicated to preserving and forwarding the values of Franklin and Eleanor has existed for 75 years.
But in the late 1980s, it became clear to the Roosevelt board, including Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, our board chair – FDR and ER’s granddaughter – that there was a need to make the Rooseveltian ideas and ideals real for today. So, two things ended up coming together by actually the ‘90s and early aughts. One is the Roosevelt student network. We actually run the largest student policy network in the country. We work on about 150 campuses in over 40 states, helping young people learn to do policy. And then the other idea is: the world needs another think tank. Let’s have a think tank that’s really dedicated to forwarding the ideals of Franklin and Eleanor. So, now, we do all three of those things.
Denver: There you go. Let’s pick up on the think tank because I don’t think they’re all that well understood. What do you, Felicia, see as the appropriate role of a think tank in American society?
Felicia: Think tanks fill really important gaps in both the development and the transmission of ideas from pure thinkers, pure academicians, to the public. If you think about how our major American institutions are structured, policymakers right now, they spend most of their time actually campaigning for office, staying in office or—you probably know this from your own life—spending all day in meetings trying to build alliances.
That really means they don’t have a tremendous amount of time to look at all the data, to think hard about: what would be the best way to increase wages or to close the racial wealth gap? Or any of the kinds of things that we work on at the Roosevelt Institute. There just isn’t enough time in most politicians’ days to do that. So, they often rely on think tanks to really get some of those ideas that they can then utilize in the service of their own kind of lawmaking and public interest.
Now, you could ask why wouldn’t a university do that? Universities are full of people who are thinkers. But actually, most academics spend their time writing for other academics, trying to get tenure and teaching…all very important things to do, but that doesn’t really mean that they have a more public audience. So, think tanks fill that gap between universities and the public, and public policymakers.
Denver: Sounds a little bit like your career because I know you were thinking of becoming the former and decided, in order to be able to reach a lot more people, it might be better to become the latter and reach a lot more people.
With all the stakeholders you have, who do you consider to be your primary audience?
Felicia: I was an academic, and I think my academic training is actually really useful for running a think tank now, which we can get into.
But at any rate, we have a couple of different audiences. One, as I had indicated before, is policymakers. Policymakers, especially now, are really hungry for big ideas. They want to understand what the best ways are to move the needle on things that they really care about. So, we talk to policymakers; we talk to presidential candidates. We also spend a tremendous amount of time with their policy staffers. So that’s one audience.
The other audience really is the media. We’re here talking today because…the Roosevelt Institute is actually a small organization. We’re about $10 million annually, which we can get into, but for a think tank, that’s really not very big. That means we don’t have an enormous PR shop. We don’t do a lot of branding and marketing. We don’t kind of go direct to consumer, as it were.
But there are a few people in the media who are really interested in the kinds of work that we do, whether it’s economics reporters, political reporters, radio show hosts who are interested in philanthropy, or who are interested in politics or business. And so, these folks are trying to understand what’s going on. They like talking to me; they like talking to our fellows and our academics and our students to try to understand more about the ideas that are really driving the contemporary political conversation.
Denver: So, you have a very targeted approach.
Felicia: We do.
People aren’t poor because they don’t know how to save money…people are poor because our economic system is actually structured to drive a kind of inequality where business executives and others who are at the top of our economic structure take home more and more, save more and more, and become increasingly wealthy…
Denver: Well, let’s turn to a couple of the issues. I know you have said, Felicia, that we do not have the right policies to address poverty because we don’t have the right analysis of what’s wrong. What would your analysis be?
Felicia: Let’s start with what’s wrong, and then let’s go to what I think is right.
For decades, many analysts have had the idea that poverty is caused by some kind of educational deficit or skills deficit in individuals who are poor. The reason people can’t save enough money, or the reason people don’t have enough assets is because they don’t know how to do those things, or they haven’t acquired the educational level it takes to become middle-class or to become wealthy.
As it turns out, the data really shows that this simply is not accurate. People aren’t poor because they don’t know how to save money – and you’ve seen this increasingly, both in the research, and now we see it in the political conversation – people are poor because our economic system is actually structured to drive a kind of inequality where business executives and others who are at the top of our economic structure take home more and more, save more and more, and become increasingly wealthy, and that leaves far less for people in the middle or at the bottom.
So, one easy statistic to look at in this regard is that 30 years ago, the average CEO to worker pay ratio – how much money a CEO will take home relative to his kind of median worker – was about 30 to 1; now, it’s about 350 to 1. You don’t see the economy having grown at that level, but you do see people at the top taking home much more, and that’s how you know that something is wrong with our economic system. It’s not the fault of people who are poor or struggling or who lack economic security; it’s actually we have structured our system incorrectly. Now, the good news there is that there are ways to structure the system better so that we do actually have an economy that works for more people.
Denver: And there are more people…it’s funny how poverty is almost becoming—I shouldn’t say this maybe—but an anachronism because it isn’t really the people who are the poorest; it really is the entire middle class. I mean, it has just gotten wider and wider and broader, and that’s where I think all the angst is coming from right now.
Felicia: I think that’s right. We used to talk…in 2011, 2012, we talked a lot about the Occupy Movement as really having started something
Denver: Right down here, as a matter of fact.
Felicia: Right around the corner, Zuccotti Park. And then you sometimes heard people say, “Oh, well, Occupy really didn’t do anything.” I actually fundamentally disagree with that. Occupy put the idea of inequality and the relationship between, as I said, the top of the economy and the rest of the economy, really put that concept on the map, made it much more commonplace to think about how our economy worked as a system.
And as you recall, that 1% — we are the 99%, they are the 1% — that kind of meme… that’s now something that you see in our political conversation every day, and I trace a lot of that back to Occupy. I have to say I also trace a lot of it back to the kinds of think tank and academic work that people at Roosevelt and other similar organizations do. But this was also something that was in the ether because I think the public actually understands this in many ways far better than people who are elected officials.
Denver: I would certainly agree with you on Occupy. It’s funny how we make a determination as to whether something is successful or not immediately after it ends. And because they didn’t have an agenda of what they wanted, it was considered to be a failure. But you really have to look at these things over the course of a number of years and recognize, “Well, this is the impact that it had,” and as you said, it really did change the conversation.
Well, the Roosevelt Institute has been advocating for New Rules for the 21st Century to deal with this enormous wealth gap in the country among other challenges. What are those new rules?
Felicia: The first piece of our New Rules agenda is really just a recognition about how our economy is structured. Since about the 1980s, we have labored under this set of ideas that the free market is the best, and that market answers and private sector solutions are going to actually do the best for the most people economically. That implies that you don’t have structures and rules in a market. And as it turns out, that is simply not true. Of course, our markets are structured by rules. And about five years ago, the Roosevelt Institute started to argue that we needed to rewrite the rules of the American economy because there’s always somebody who’s writing the rules. The question is: Are you going to write the rules to benefit more of us or to benefit fewer of us?
So, most recently, we put out a report called New Rules for the 21st Century that actually argued that you needed three things to make better rules in our economy. First thing you needed to do was to recognize that corporate power can be quite extractive, and too few corporations having too much power can really harm wages; it obviously can harm prices. And so, one of the things you need to do is to curb corporate power.
The second thing you need to do… we call it like a one-two punch. The first punch is curbing corporate power; the second punch is really reinvesting in public power — that means government. Goes right back to FDR, of course. But we should be looking at direct public investment for some of our biggest economic and political challenges. That means climate change; that means health care. There are many ways in which the government actually can do a better job in solving these kinds of social problems than the private markets. And so, that’s the second punch: relooking and re-empowering the public.
And finally, the third thing is we need to make sure we’re doing this – this is especially important in an increasingly multiracial, multi-ethnic democracy – we must do this for a broader polity. We must do this for more people, not fewer. It is not okay to say that we recognize that corporate power can be problematic and that we need more empowerment of people if you’re doing that in a way that really is only for a very small, very limited number of people, particularly only for white Americans. That is just not okay. You do see some political figures right now making that argument; I will say that that is morally wrong, and it’s economically wrong.
Denver: Let me revisit Punch #1 because recently the Business Roundtable – and that’s some 200 CEOs – issued a statement with the new definition of the purpose of a corporation. It is no longer exclusively, first and foremost, to serve the shareholders and maximize profit, but also now to invest in employees and deliver values and to deal ethically, and a number of other of those goals. What do you make of that? Do you think it’s a sincere statement? Or do you think it might be a little bit more PR than anything else?
Felicia: I think that what the Business Roundtable has done could be a really important shift in how we think about our economy being structured. This idea of shareholder value…the idea that the only goal of a corporation is to actually deliver economic value to the people who own pieces of the company, you can trace this back to Milton Friedman in the 1970s.
Felicia: You’re right. The famous New York Times magazine piece. As it turns out, this argument has yielded the kind of very slow growth, low-wage economy that we are suffering under today, and I think we’re suffering under this for political reasons – politically as well as economically.
So, I think the fact that the Business Roundtable has said that what they want to do is invest – yes, for shareholders, but longer-term, they also want to make sure that they’re “investing in workers and investing in the larger community” …This could be really important. However, the question is really whether they’re going to put their money where their mouths are, and really whether they’re going to put their power behind the kinds of rules and regulations that we already see; many of these ideas have been developed by my colleagues at the Roosevelt Institute. There are things that these CEOs could do right now, could agree to right now, that would actually create more of a stakeholder economy instead of a shareholder economy, and we have yet to see those kinds of specifics from the CEOs.
Denver: What’s your take? What do you think is going to happen?
Felicia: I would be very surprised to see these financial corporation CEOs, tech CEOs, really voluntarily agree to the kinds of regulation, the kind of wage increases, the kinds of boardroom governance that some political candidates are calling for that really would fundamentally shift power in the way that companies are run.
One of the ideas out there is something called co-determination. It’s the idea that workers should be able to either serve on corporate boards, or they should be able to elect representatives to corporate boards. This is a very big idea; actually, Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed this in her Accountable Capitalism Act– that 40% of the people who serve on board should be elected by employees. If you really saw corporate CEOs agreeing to that kind of decision-making, sharing, it’s a kind of democratization of voice in the workplace. If you really started to see that, then I would say that the Business Roundtable would, in fact, be practicing what it preaches. But we will see.
Denver: We will see. It’s funny how it is also a very limited definition of what makes a country successful because we’ve lived in a world of GDP. So, it doesn’t surprise me that corporations look at the economic health of a country, and that’s the way we rate them. And now you’re seeing countries like New Zealand saying, “No, no, no. That’s a factor. But it’s 1 of 10,” and we have to think about the health of society, of which this is just one of the determinants.
Felicia: Right. It’s interesting. I think a lot about The Powell Memo, which Lewis Powell wrote in 1972 where he actually argued that one of the things that the country needed at that time – as you would recall, it’s a hugely chaotic period of time. You had already at that point suspicions about Richard Nixon; ultimately, that became the Watergate investigation. You had Vietnam. You had the Free Speech Movement. You had a tremendous amount of chaos in the country between 1968 and 1973, 1974. Anyway, at that point in time, Lewis Powell wrote The Powell Memo arguing that what we really needed were better CEOs, more responsible corporate governance, rather than these crazy kids protesting at Berkeley. And more CEO power was going to actually combat the kind of radicalism that Powell feared in the country.
Now, interestingly, what The Powell Memo ended up leading to was this kind of Milton Friedmanesque shareholder primacy that the Business Roundtable is now fighting against. So, I would be quite suspicious actually about saying that CEOs are going to solve their own problems. As I said earlier, I think that government is going to have to do a lot to make sure that that happens.
This is not just about redistributing money; this is actually about making sure that the people who are value creators, namely middle-class workers, get money into their own hands, and so can drive growth.
Denver: In addition to what you just mentioned about Elizabeth Warren, is there any proposal that a presidential candidate has offered up that is particularly in line with what the Roosevelt Institute advocates for? And is there one that no one has suggested that you would love to see put on the agenda?
Felicia: I think you have to look at all the new tax policies that are out there right now. You see wealth taxes, which again Senator Warren has put forward. Senator Sanders has also talked about certain kinds of wealth taxes. I think you also have to look at really increasing income taxes, and you further have to look at ways to close the international corporate tax loopholes that drive literally trillions of dollars every year offshore and out of American revenues.
So, I think you have to look at fundamentally rethinking our tax structure. You need to be able to say that raising taxes is good because it’s going to raise more revenue to do the kinds of things we need to do publicly. You also need to be able to say that raising taxes is actually good for growth and good for our democracy. This is not just about redistributing money; this is actually about making sure that the people who are value creators, namely middle-class workers, get money into their own hands, and so can drive growth.
And then finally, I think that part of taxing wealth is actually taxing away a kind of increasingly calcified oligarchy. So, you got a look at the tax structure, and it’s not… the conservative movement in the 1970s was really built on a low tax orthodoxy. I think we have to turn that on its head if we want to actually increase prosperity for all. So, that’s one big piece that I think we ought to be looking at and that I’m actually very excited about.
Something that we haven’t yet seen on the presidential agenda that I’d really like to see is this idea that big public investment to fight our biggest national and international challenges – climate is the most obvious example – is actually good for our economy. Jay Inslee, another presidential candidate, put out a $9 trillion climate plan, did a lot of work to show how you could actually drive job growth in impoverished regions of the country if you started investing in green infrastructure. The thing we haven’t heard yet is the analysis that my colleagues at the Roosevelt Institute have put out, which is actually using public money to pay for that kind of investment is a smart move; it will actually be better for our economy.
We should not be trapped by a kind of climate austerity, which is like we recognize finally that climate change is a real problem, but we feel that we cannot pay for big, new investments. The macroeconomic conditions, including but not exclusively — including low-interest rates actually suggest that we can afford to pay for the kinds of investment that many candidates, including Governor Inslee, are promoting.
Denver: Turning to philanthropy for a moment, do you see foundations taking a different approach to some of the topics they’ve been working on for the past 5 or 10 years?
Felicia: I do. Philanthropies for a very long time – especially philanthropies that support what we do: policymaking, policy development, et cetera – they’d been working in issue silos. Let’s work on wage issues; let’s work on healthcare issues; let’s work on issues of the caring economy.
What we’re actually starting to see now is a move towards actually promoting the idea that what we do need is a new economic worldview. I know you talked to Mike Kubzansky a month or so ago, and he really talked about this– the idea that both Omidyar and the Hewlett Foundation are looking at promoting a post-neoliberal… meaning really a post-Milton Friedman/ post-Friedrich Hayek worldview. That is incredibly important because all of these issues, whether its climate or wages or taxation or corporate governance, actually fit within a worldview that says, “In my worldview, we need more public power and more government power. And in order to do that, you actually need to think differently about how our economy ought to be structured.”
I find it more admirable when you see mega donors supporting things that are actually against their economic interests. So, I think that is one way to ask whether people are actually using their philanthropic contributions to create a better society, more public good versus not; are they using their money in self-interested ways? But that’s not really the only measure.
Denver: Let’s talk about mega philanthropy. They have these mega philanthropists who have come under significant scrutiny – sometimes people believe they’re using their money to cover up the way they made their money. There’s probably nobody more obvious than the Sacklers; that’s one example. But also, they’re having undue influence on a particular field because of the weight of their contribution. And in so many of these cases, this is all tax-deductible, so we’re all in part paying for it. What’s your take on that?
Felicia: Obviously, you see extremely rich philanthropists on both sides of the political aisle. I find it more admirable when you see mega donors supporting things that are actually against their economic interests. So, I think that is one way to ask whether people are actually using their philanthropic contributions to create a better society, more public good, versus not; are they using their money in self-interested ways? But that’s not really the only measure.
I would say more broadly in a democracy, you need more power from workers, you need more power from individual people, and that means more voice in people’s day-to-day kind of economic decisions. I talked earlier about workplace democracy.
So, I do think that many wealthy donors are doing great good in the world; I think that many are not doing good in the world. But regardless, we don’t want a world that’s essentially governed by the whims of extra-political, non-democratic donors.
Denver: Speaking of workplace culture, describe the corporate culture at the Roosevelt Institute and why you believe it is such a special place to work?
Felicia: Well, I think Roosevelt’s a great place to work but, of course, I’m the CEO, so you should probably ask the last person we hired. But that being said, I do think it’s special for three reasons.
The first has to do with our commitment to real communication and transparency. We bring a lot of different kinds of people together at Roosevelt. We have intellectuals and academics. We have people whose job it is to reach out to senators’ offices, so Chuck Schumer and Chris Coons, and we have people whose job it is to do the finance and the accounting and the development work. Those are really different kinds of people. So even in a small organization, you have to really be committed to bringing the kinds of people who are thinkers, the kinds of people who are relationship builders, and the kinds of people who are kind of green eyeshades focused on the operations and the money. You have to work hard to bring them all together. I definitely have an open-door policy, and I try to make sure that we have monthly conversations with our staff where people can pretty much ask and report out and answer anything they want. So that’s one big piece.
The other big piece actually has to do with how we bring new people on. Many of our staff are quite young. We run the student network, so of course, many of the people who run that student network actually were…last year, they were college students themselves. So, onboarding is really important. One of the reasons that’s important is that you can commit to racial and gender and ethnic and religious diversity. As we do in our hiring practices; it’s very important for us to bring on people who are diverse. But if you’re really going to include them, you have to make sure that everybody kind of understands the workplace culture in the same way. So everything from like “How does the coffee maker work?” to “Could you really just knock on Felicia’s door and ask her a question? to like “How do I understand how money is spent here?” All of those kinds of things, you need to establish a common onboarding system for everybody that actually allows people who may have come from less-advantaged backgrounds the same kind of access to information, and ultimately to power as everybody else in the shop.
So that is really another very important thing that we do. So, I think I guess these are both ways of thinking about transparency and communication, but I think they’re both really important.
Denver: Well, a big part of your job is to persuade other people. You have a very clear worldview about the Roosevelt Institute, and what you try to do is convince others about that. Usually, telling people that “Hey. Look at these facts. I’m right, and you’re wrong” doesn’t work. So how do you think about trying to persuade other people to come around to some of the thinking of the Institute?
Felicia: Well, actually, trying to persuade people that what we are arguing for, which is a better economy for more people, is less difficult than you would think, in part because the new data is very clear that almost all people who vote as Democrats – we are a 501(c)(3) with a small 501(c)(4), which I’m happy to talk about – but anyway, most people who vote as Democrats actually agree with the kind of progressive economic policies that we are putting forward; that’s great. Not only that, 1 in 5 Republicans, about 20% of all people who vote Republican, also agree with these policies, as do something like 70% of all independents.
So, I actually think that our ideas are popular. Now, the fact that they are not yet fully in power speaks to a political problem, but in terms of persuading people, I think that when I go out there and tell people what we stand for, when presidential candidates go out there and tell people, say, have ideas, articulate ideas that sound more or less like the Roosevelt worldview, you mostly get people nodding along.
Now, that being said I do think you have to appeal to more than just that to really get more people on your side. There are a couple of things I try to do. One is to actually talk very explicitly about morals and values. There is a view of freedom that we at the Roosevelt Institute have – freedom and dignity– but let’s just talk about freedom for a second that we at the Roosevelt Institute have that goes right back to FDR’s Four Freedoms: freedom from want; freedom from fear; freedom of speech; and freedom of worship. These four freedoms really have to go together.
We talk especially about freedom, from what no person is really free when he or she doesn’t have enough money in the bank to pay for an unexpected $400 expense. You got a flat tire, and suddenly you are really in huge economic crisis. This kind of Rooseveltian notion of freedom is quite appealing obviously to sort of Left millennials who might already be on our side. But when I talk about it in that way, that’s also pretty appealing to older people who remember Franklin and Eleanor, remember what they stood for, and then they’ll say, “Oh, yes. There was a time in which we actually felt that government had our back; that we had a president who listened to us,” and that was directly connected to a kind of New Deal policymaking that we could bring back today and even improve on. So, I think there are ways to appeal to people’s data, kind of need for the facts, and to people’s emotions, and even to the kinds of people they think of as heroes.
Denver: And sometimes a little sense of nostalgia goes a long way in making people come around.
Felicia: That is true. Let’s make sure that that nostalgia is utilized in ways that push us forward and not only backward, but that’s something that we’re trying to do at the Roosevelt Institute.
Denver: Well, Felicia Wong, President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute, thanks so much for being here this evening. For listeners who are interested in this work, tell us a little bit about your website and some of the information that they can find on it.
Felicia: Well, if you’d like to learn more about our work at the Roosevelt Institute, you can go to www.rooseveltinstitute.org. We’ve got all our policy papers there, and we’ve got shorter pieces if you don’t really feel like reading an 80-page analysis of the current political economy. And we’ve got a way that you can actually donate as well. We’d really appreciate that.
Denver: Thanks, Felicia. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Felicia: Thank you.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.