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A Conversation With Mark Zuckerman, President, The Century Foundation

May 29, 2019

For Massachusetts folks of a certain age, the name Filene's Basement evokes memories of a crowded emporium where the hunt for bargains, especially on weekends, often resembled competitive sport. The basement was the brainchild of Edward A. Filene, whose father, William, founded Filene's in 1908. It was Edward, however, who recognized that growing numbers of American factory workers represented a new market and persuaded his father to start selling surplus, overstock, and closeout merchandise in the basement of his flagship Downtown Crossing store.

The experiment was a huge success, and the Filenes soon joined the ranks of America’s wealthiest families. In 1919, Ed Filene, already recognized as a progressive business leader, founded the Co-operative League — later renamed the Twentieth Century Fund — one of the first public policy research institutes in the country.

Mark Zuckerman joined TCF — which changed its name to the Century Foundation in the early 2000s — as president in 2015. A veteran of the Obama administration, where he served as Deputy Director of the Domestic Policy Council, leading teams on initiatives to reduce student debt, increase accountability at for-profit educational institutions, reduce workplace discrimination, and expand access to job training, and Capitol Hill, where he served as staff director for the House Education and Labor Committee, Zuckerman has worked over the last four years to bring the organization’s research efforts and policy work into the twenty-first century.

PND spoke with Zuckerman recently about some of those changes, the meaning of the 2018 midterm elections, and TCF’s efforts to advance a progressive policy agenda.

Headshot_mark_zuckermanPhilanthropy News Digest: The Century Foundation is marking its hundredth anniversary in 2019. Tell us a bit about Edward Filene, the man who created it back in 1919.

Mark Zuckerman: Ed Filene was a prominent businessman but also somebody who was deeply engaged in public policy, a rare combination in those days. The era in which he was working was a time when there wasn't strong governmental involvement in the economy, and where it was involved, it was too weak to effectively address the economic chal­lenges of the day. Things like workers' wages and benefits, anti-trust enforcement, and a lack of transparency with respect to Wall Street, something that eventually led to passage of the Securities and Exchange Act.

Ed Filene very much believed in more robust engagement by local, state, and the federal government in people's lives. And he felt that research was a linchpin of good public policy. At the time, there were very few think tanks — the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace had been started a year earlier and Brookings had been started two years before that. 

So, the idea of a private entity taking on challenges that, in the past, only government had had sufficient resources to address was something new. Today, of course, there are think tanks all over the world focused on many different subjects, but Ed Filene really was in on the beginning of the think tank movement and on think tanks as places where social policy, progressive social policy in Mr. Filene's case, would be discussed and developed.

Like Henry Ford, he believed that paying a decent wage to your employees was good for the overall economy, and in his writings he expressed support for a mandatory minimum wage. He also gave speeches about the importance of supporting the Roosevelt admin­istration in its attempt to get Congress to pass something that looked a lot like Medicare and urged people to call in their support for initiatives Roosevelt and his brain trust were proposing.

One of the public policy innovations he was most interested in was the credit union movement, and for a specific reason. At the time, the nineteen-thirties, financial institutions mostly were there to lend and cater to businesses and wealthy individuals. There simply was no infra­structure in the United States to provide the middle class — never mind lower-income folks — with capital to buy their first home or even to invest in a small business. Ed Filene viewed credit unions as a critical tool for providing Americans with capital that could help them thrive and grow the middle class. And so he embarked on a major effort, not only at the national level but at the state level, including his own state, Massachusetts, to authorize the creation of credit unions, which sort of makes him the father of the credit union movement.

PND: Let's jump ahead a bit. How does the Century Foundation's work support a progressive policy agenda in 2019? And how has the organization's model evolved over the last hundred years to support that work?

MZ: Well, one of the big changes the Century Foundation went through — and I would say it was in keeping with changes in the way policy was made over the decades — is that it evolved over the years from being essentially a book publisher, which was what it was for decades. Back then, it would engage influential thinkers about specific social policy ideas they wanted to promote in book form. Many of those titles were, of course, written for policy elites, with the idea that these ideas would be circulated and eventually find their way into the halls of Con­gress or onto the floor of state legislatures. It was a common sort of model for academic institutions and emerging think tanks during the mid-twentieth century. But over time, and especially as the Internet became more widely used, the model changed. Today, having influence in or impact on public policy requires a lot more than just having a good idea, and too many of these books end up sitting on shelves, unread. Maybe they're filled with great ideas, but there are fewer and fewer people willing to pull those ideas out of those volumes and turn them into policy.

So, the Century Foundation today is very differ­ent than it was seventy or fifty or even twenty years ago, in that we are taking more responsibility — not only for coming up with creative solutions to today's challenges, but for figuring out how to use the resources we have beyond research and the development of policy ideas to create impact.

That's the big shift — the leveraging of intellectual and advocacy resources and institutional relationships to drive policy change. When I joined TCF as president four years ago, I hired a number of people who had recent experience in the White House or in federal agencies or on Capitol Hill, because I wanted people who understood how best to approach those institutions, and how they could have an impact on those institutions. They were also people with a high level of expertise in their particular subject matter. That's been my focus as president — finding people who know who the policy players in Washington are, who have deep expertise in their subject matter and the ability to do good research, and who have wide, influential networks in the advocacy, policy, and academic communities.

PND: Can you give us an example of how that focus has played out with respect to a specific issue?

MZ: So, the day after Barack Obama's second term in office ended, I hired a woman named Jeanne Lambrew who had been President Obama's top healthcare expert. Jeanne came to the Century Foundation for two years to be a resource to us in our efforts to defend the Affordable Care Act, which was under attack by Republican members of Congress. We felt that healthcare advocates needed to have access to someone who knew the history of the legislation, someone who knew how it was being undermined administratively or could be repealed or compromised in a significant way. And for two years, thanks to our investment, Jeanne did just that, making herself available to people on Capitol Hill who had technical questions or questions about strategy, and laying the groundwork for an in-depth analysis of competing proposals that could serve as the basis of the next generation of healthcare reform. Besides Medicare for All, there are four or five other proposals out there that could serve as the basis for a new and improved version of the Affordable Care Act. And through convenings, conferences, commissions of work, and her own work, Jeanne brought attention to those proposals, which, in my opinion, are going to very much be front and center in the next presi­dential election cycle.

PND: In their book The Liberal Hour, MacKenzie and Weisbrot argue that while civil rights activists, New Left dissidents, and student protesters all played important roles in driving social change in the 1960s, it was "the institutions of national politics, and the politicians and bureaucrats who inhabited them, that produced the social and economic changes that became the deep and enduring legacy of that decade." Do you agree with that?

MZ: I think underlying your question is the question of how much government intervention there should be in the economy. Capitalism has great strengths, but as we know, it also tends to leave a lot of people behind. And I think the debates of the last several decades, to a significant degree, have been about what level of government intervention in the economy is appropriate in terms of making sure that the rich and powerful aren't the only ones with the power to make decisions, aren't the only ones who do well, and that everyone has adequate access to the kinds of resources, whether it's education or housing or healthcare or retirement security, they need to realize their full potential.

The Century Foundation and other progressive institutions will say, unabashedly, that in some cases there needs to be significant intervention by gov­ernment to ensure that all Americans have access to the resources they need to realize their full potential. And, of course, there are people on the right who subscribe to the idea that each of us is on our own, that capitalism creates winners and losers, and that if you're a loser in a capitalist system, well, then, you're a loser and that, moreover, government has no role to play in terms of ensuring that everyone has a shot, that everyone gets to participate in our democracy, and that everyone enjoys the full rights of citizenship.

PND: The freshman class elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms includes record numbers of women and people of color. What's your view of what happened in November?

MZ: I think 2018 was one of the most significant midterm elections since 1974, when the first post-Watergate class came in and passed a number of reforms to the way Con­gress does its business, not to mention broader reforms in the economy. In some ways, the 2018 midterms were even more consequential, because of the diversity and energy that the new representatives have brought to Washington. They look a lot more like America looks in 2019, and to my mind they represent what America in the future will look like.

Now, it may take two, four, even ten years to deliver on some of the most progressive ideas that many in this freshman class are pushing and fighting for, but I think they're trying, as a group, to shift where the center is, and that's very important to making progress in public policy — shifting the center of the debate. And I think they're succeeding. As a group, they're expanding the definition of what's possible in terms of government intervention, especially as it relates to the security of the middle class, as well as low-income populations that haven't been given access to the kind of tools and resources and opportunities they need to prosper.

PND: What is the Century Foundation doing in 2019 to advance a progressive agenda in the United States?

MZ: One of the things we're tackling is the college affordability issue. The single most important thing we can do as a country, in my opinion, is to make sure young people have the opportunity to prosper economic­ally, and that simply is not the case right now. There are too many young people who don't have access to a four-year education or even a two-year or vocational education. Or they get to college only to drop out because they don't have the kinds of support, beyond tuition assistance, they need to navigate the college landscape — things like basic living expenses and child care and money for food and transportation. None of that is properly figured into the actual cost of college, and that's a problem, because we have to make it possible for more young people to get the kind of education they're going to need to thrive in the twenty-first century.

So, one of the things we're looking at here at TCF is the idea of debt-free college, with a focus on the kinds of resources and training we can provide to the next generation who are going to college — and who, in many cases, may be the first in their family to go to college. We spend tens of billions of dollars on higher education in this country, and only $5 billion on college-prep training and vocational programs. That's just wrong. And it means we're shortchanging young people who are looking for something other than the traditional college path

None of that is acceptable, and so we're working hard to come up with proposals, especially in the context of federal-state partnerships, that would provide millions of more young people access to college and, when they get to college, make it possible for them not to have to take on backbreaking amounts of debt in order to graduate. I mean, that's just not what the American dream is about. Ultimately, the idea is to have federal-state partnerships that help make college accessible and affordable for every­one, and to invest in alternative tracks like vocational or certificate training for those who feel that that's a better path for them. We have to invest in those individuals as well, and not just people on the four-year college track.

PND: Obviously, there is a lot of anxiety in America about the way the economy has changed and how the nature of work is changing. What is the Century Foundation doing to address those challenges?

MZ: One focus is labor unions. A lot of your readers can recall a time, as recently as the 1970s, when organized labor represented as much as a third of all the people employed in the United States. The simple fact of the matter is that unionization had the effect of preserving good wages and benefits for American workers, and of giving workers bargaining power in their dealings with employers. But in the decades since, we've seen a dramatic decline in union membership in America, especially in private-sector unionization, where today it's only 6 percent of the private-sector workforce. Meanwhile, Congress, for the better part of three decades, has been absolutely stuck in terms of doing what one would like to see it do when it comes to important social legislation, and that is to update and modernize laws already on the books so that they continue to work for the benefit of American workers.

One of the things I wrote about earlier this year concerned the opportunity for the labor movement and its allies to do something that is done in political campaigns, and that, of course, is to promote themselves with modern tech­nology and digital marketing techniques to activists and people who are interested in creating new unions. Technology has been deployed in hundreds of ways and in every area of the economy — whether it's filing your taxes, or booking an airline reservation, or automatically paying a toll with an E-ZPass — to make life easier for the consumer and help individuals work more efficiently. And it's unfortunate that the same technologies have not been marshaled to help people understand their right to form and be part of a labor union.

So what I outlined in my paper is how digital marketing techniques can be used to present the benefits of labor unions to a new generation — a generation, I might add, that is very used to and receptive to these technologies. It gives labor and its allies specific suggestions with respect to how the labor movement could be revived and strengthened because, as I said, it's one of the keys to making the American economy work for all Americans again.

There are also policy changes we need to make, some of which are being discussed at TCF and elsewhere in think-tank land — things like a guaranteed basic income for every American, a higher minimum wage, better overtime protections, an updating of the National Labor Relations Act, putting some teeth into our anti-trust laws, and passing corporate respon­sibility legislation.

All those things — along with better trade policy — play a role in addressing what has become an historic level of inequal­ity in the United States. In the last thirty years, we've seen wages stagnate for the lower quintiles and explode for the very highest quintile. And it's going to take more than one strategy to fix the problem; it's going to take half a dozen strategies to change the trajectory of wage gains for most Americans. If we do nothing, the problem will only get worse, creating greater and greater economic inequality in the country, and posing a real threat to our democracy.

PND: Ed Filene's foundation was an early promoter of public-private partner­ships, and the foundation con­tinues to work very much in that spirit. Over the last forty years or so, however, Americans have been conditioned to believe that government is inefficient and expensive. What can progressives do to change their fellow citizens' view of government and the role it plays in promoting the common weal?

MZ: This is a big chal­lenge for the progressive movement, especially at a time when so many good things have hap­pened in the country with respect to the protection of individual rights. The phenomenon you describe was observed during the debates on the Affordable Care Act, when it wasn't unusual to hear people express the belief that Medicare was a private-sector program. They would slam the Affordable Care Act as a tyrannical federal program and in the next breath say, "And keep your hands off my Medicare," failing completely to make the connection between the two.

So, yes, we face a big challenge around educating people about all the ways in which our investments in the federal government improve their lives, and that those investments have involved decades and decades of hard work aimed at trying to perfect these programs so that they are reliable, efficient, and — no small matter — properly understood and appreciated. Look at Social Security. When it was first proposed, it was bitterly contested and argued about, and for a few years after it was passed into law there were attempts to undermine and repeal it. Eighty years later, it is woven into the fabric of the country — so much so that something like President Bush’s attempt to privatize it was met with massive resistance. By and large, Americans just expect that they're going to get a monthly Social Security check when they reach a certain age, and they don't make the connection between their own reliance on the program and it actually being a big, successful government program that is emblematic of the best of what government can do for them.

Long story short, I think progressives have to do a better job of pointing to the government programs that work and improve people's lives and then make the case that without more interventions in the economy to balance the depredations of global capitalism, they're going to be worse off than they would be with a little more government in their lives. That's what the debate over the last few decades has been about, and it will continue to be what the debate is about for the foreseeable future. Progressives need to fight hard against this philosophy that we're all on our own, and that government is just a big, wasteful bureaucracy with no redeeming value.

That said, I also think it’s important for government to make itself more efficient through the smart use of modern tech­nologies, and to work in a way that is more responsive to individuals who need help. In some cases, that means making more investments in things that it under-invests in, especially K-12 education. That's the challenge for the progressive movement.

PND: What is your take on the new generation of politicians and policy leaders that has emerged in Washington and in state capitals around the country?

MZ: I think it's a fantastic development and the Democratic Party should be very proud of the diversity it represents today, both in terms of people of color and the representation of women. In Congress and in state legislatures across the country, the power structure is more reflective of the citizens it is meant to serve than ever before, and that is essential if our democracy is to thrive.

Beyond that, I think this is a transformative moment in our democracy, and I think this new generation of leaders is already doing a good job of identifying the shortcomings of existing public policy and making it clear what kinds of public policy we need going forward, whether it's universal health care, or action on climate change, or tackling income and wealth inequality. They are successfully engaging the country in these hard-to-solve problems, and they are doing so with specific solutions, in some cases even going around elite power structures and appealing directly to the people. That's probably the only way they will succeed, given the state of our extremely inadequate and counter-productive campaign finance laws.

PND: So, I take it you do not think the United States is a country in decline. If that's not the case, what makes you optimistic about the future?

MZ: No, I don't think we’re in decline, but I do think people are frustrated, because they see we have a set of very big challenges that need to be addressed, and they don't see any evidence that government is willing or able to address them. What they see instead is partisanship and grid­lock, and that causes them to be frustrated.

But what is hopeful about this rising generation is that so many of them are courageous and outspoken and seem to be willing to put their shoulder to the wheel. They are also very clear-eyed about who is blocking progress and the changes that the country wants and needs. Whether it's the Parkland students, or the new generation of legislators in the House who want to open things up and create processes that work better for the American people, or those who think the judiciary needs to be more responsive to ordinary Americans. Whatever the forum, there is this sense, I think, of optimism that new blood can revive our democracy and deliver on its promise — not just for Americans but for the world.

But they need to be sup­ported. That's the reason that the Century Foundation, in honor of our hundredth anniversary this year, launched Next100, a new, independent, and first-of-its-kind pop-up think tank for the next generation of policy leaders. For the next two years, we'll select six emerging policy leaders and give them training, resources, and support to tackle a policy challenge of their choosing, all while providing them full-timed salaried positions and benefits. After we announced Next100 earlier this year, more than seven hundred people applied — from all walks of life and backgrounds, wanting to work on all sorts of challenges. It was an inspiring response to witness, and we just finished interviews and will be announcing the incoming class of leaders in July. Stay tuned.

So that's, in part, what makes me optimistic about the future of America — the next generation of leaders coming up.

Mitch Nauffts

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