With the electoral victory of Bill de Blasio in New York City, an unabashed economic progressive, and the rising star of Elizabeth Warren, the issue of inequality has come to occupy center stage in lefty policy discussions. As Greg has been writing, it’s popular — something we see in reports today that Democrats are planning to use a near-certain GOP vote against a bill hiking the minimum wage against them in 2014.
But this has brought about a reaction from center-left types, who insist that the progressives have their priorities wrong. In the process, they mischaracterize the progressive view, and set up a false dichotomy between that and establishment positions. Progressives see inequality as a fundamental part of why our economy is not working as it once did, not a problem to be placed above job creation.
Bill Keller recently provided a representative sample:
The left-left sees economic inequality as mainly a problem of distribution — the accumulation of vast wealth that never really trickles down from on high. Their prescription is to tax the 1 percent and close corporate loopholes, using the new revenues to subsidize the needs of the poor and middle class…
The center-left — and that includes President Obama, most of the time — sees the problem and the solutions as more complicated. Yes, you want to provide greater security for those without independent means (see Obamacare), but you also need to create opportunity, which means, first and foremost, jobs. … The center-left … agrees on the menace of inequality, but places equal or greater emphasis on the fact that the economy is not growing the way it did for most of the last century.
First of all, this is a bit rich to hear from the center. The left has been howling about jobs and growth for five years now, for so long and so loud that our collective tonsils have about come unglued — and who were we arguing against? The centrists, who were a major bloc of support behind the premature turn to austerity back in 2010. Better late than never, I guess. Welcome to the party, guys!
In fact, this longstanding hair-on-fire panic about mass unemployment, which until now has been met with near-total indifference from the elite, is a big part of what motivates the inequality focus today. Because I have never met or even heard of someone concerned with inequality who is not also a fervent supporter of immediate monetary and fiscal stimulus to restore full employment as fast as possible. (That’s Item One in the inequality-reduction handbook!) The problem isn’t just mass unemployment — it’s the fact that we haven’t done anything about it since 2009. As Steve Randy Waldman has written, there are many economic strategies to create jobs now, of which we are trying none whatsoever. Inequality-driven discrepancies in political influence are a probable factor here.
What’s more, there is a compelling case that inequality is a major reason why our economy seems so prone to bubbles and why traditional policy remedies no longer have much purchase on job creation. A full recounting is beyond the scope of this post, but such arguments are worth taking seriously.
In any case, Keller is right to say that Republicans are now the major obstacle to any job creation agenda, so if centrists are now aboard the jobs train, I welcome them with open arms. They just shouldn’t kid themselves about who is for growth and job creation, and who isn’t.