Elites focus on inequality; real people just want growth

May 6th, 2014

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The economic debate is now sharply focused on the issue of income inequality. That may not be the debate Democrats want to have, however. It’s negative and divisive. Democrats would be better off talking about growth — a hopeful and unifying agenda.

Democrats believe income inequality is a populist cause. But it may be less of a populist issue than an issue promoted by the cultural elite: well-educated professionals who are economically comfortable but not rich. There’s new evidence that ordinary voters care more about growth.

Growth and inequality are not separate issues. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz wrote, “Politicians typically talk about rising inequality and the sluggish recovery as separate phenomena when they are in fact intertwined.  Inequality restrains and holds back our economic growth

The question is whether Democrats want to talk about punitive and confiscatory policies aimed at curbing the power of the wealthy and special interests or an agenda aimed at growing the economy for everyone.

Policies aimed at reducing inequality gain more traction with voters when they are pitched as pro-growth policies. Issues like raising the minimum wage, extending unemployment benefits, pay equity for women, student-loan debt relief, increasing the earned income tax credit and closing tax loopholes for the rich.

The argument is straightforward: More fairness means more growth. When the incomes of the poor and the middle class are growing, consumption — the principal driver of economic growth — goes up. So do tax revenues and investment in business and education.

Former President Bill Clinton, in a speech at Georgetown University last week, called inequality “a severe constraint on growth.” He defended his administration’s pro-growth agenda. “My commitment was to restore broad-based prosperity to the economy,” Clinton declared, “and to give Americans a chance.”  He noted that 7.7 million Americans were lifted out of poverty during his eight years in office.

During the last four years of Clinton’s presidency, the nation’s economic growth rate averaged 4.5 percent a year — three times as high as last year. Plus we had a budget surplus. Yes, incomes grew for the richest 20 percent of Americans during the 1990s. But, as Clinton noted, they grew faster for the poorest 20 percent. “It worked out pretty well,” he said. Even though the left criticized his policies of financial deregulation, welfare reform, free trade and balancing the budget.   We now have evidence from the GlobalStrategyGroup, a Democratic consulting firm, that the growth agenda is more popular than the inequality agenda.  Asked how much of a priority it should be for Congress to “promote an agenda of economic growth that will benefit all Americans,” 78 percent called it extremely or very important. Growth topped the list. At the bottom: addressing income inequality (50 percent) and spreading wealth more evenly (43 percent).

Would voters prefer a candidate focused on “more economic growth” or “less income inequality”? No contest. Growth beat inequality, 80 percent to 16 percent. Growth also came out ahead of “increasing wages,” “expanding the middle class,” “economic justice to level the playing field for middle- and low-income Americans” and even “more economic fairness.”

That doesn’t mean Democrats have to choose between growth and inequality.  The GSG poll showed that Democratic policies aimed at reducing inequality are seen as promoting growth. Solid majorities (ranging from 54 percent to 74 percent) said that providing more income opportunity for all, increasing spending on education and infrastructure, making seniors’ retirement more secure, increasing the minimum wage and asking the wealthy to pay more taxes would lead to more economic growth rather than less.

Democrats already have credibility on the inequality issue. Asked which party can be trusted “to enact policies that will lead to more income opportunity for all,” Democrats lead Republicans 46 percent to 34 percent.

What Democrats lack, however, is credibility on the growth issue. Asked which party can be trusted “to enact policies that will lead to more economic growth,” it’s a dead heat: Democrats 39 percent, Republicans 39 percent.  After George W. Bush and Barack Obama, voters aren’t sure which party can deliver prosperity.

What’s driving the inequality frenzy? New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote, “If you are a young professional in a major city, you experience inequality firsthand. But the inequality you experience most acutely is not inequality down, toward the poor; it’s inequality up, toward the rich.”  They’re the people who are buying Thomas Piketty’s bookadvocating redistribution of wealth.

These days, a lot of American politics is a war between two elites. For years, polls have revealed that the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to vote Republican. But the better educated you are, the more likely you are to vote Democratic. So in 2012, we got a race between Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who represented the elite of wealth, and Obama, who represented the elite of education.

The debate over inequality is a debate between these two bitterly antagonistic elites. An army of country-club conservatives doing battle with an army of NPR liberals. The fabulously wealthy Koch brothers, for example, versus the fabulously well-educated Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a former Harvard professor.

What do ordinary voters want? They want an economic boom.

Ronald Reagan got elected in a recession and delivered a boom in his second term. Clinton got elected in a recession and delivered a boom in his second term. Voters’ deep dissatisfaction with Obama right now is due mostly to his failure to deliver on the economy. That’s why the most popular political figures in the country today are the Clintons.

Bring them back, people hope, and maybe we can bring back the “good times.’’

This piece was originally published via Reuters.