MacGillis argues that this outcome is in part driven by resentments of those who believe they’ve pulled themselves up by their bootstraps (even if the government helped them pull) against those they view as milking public support without trying to improve their lot. Such sentiments are amped up by prominent conservatives like House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) who worries that the safety net is becoming a “hammock … that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.”
It’s an argument as old as poverty itself (see, e.g., English Poor Laws of 1601). I recall similar polemics during the welfare reform debate of the 1990s, when the resentment of low-income working families toward non-working families was tapped as motivation to add work requirements to the program.
Today, with the presidential election turning into yet another polarized, high-stakes argument about the role of government in the economy, taxes, health care, poverty, inequality, climate, financial regulation, immigration and pretty much everything else, the Democrats’ “willies” must loom large.
MacGillis believes that shared growth would go a long way toward altering these political dynamics in favor of a necessary role for policy in the list of areas just noted:
“The best way to reduce resentment … would be to bring about true economic growth in the areas where the use of government benefits is on the rise … if fewer people need the safety net to get by, the stigma will fade, and low-income citizens will be more likely to re-engage in their communities — not least by turning out to vote.”
By “true economic growth,” he means growth that reaches far beyond Wall Street, and even Main Street, to the hollows of Appalachia; growth that would fill the growing black hole in heart of coal country, where opportunity is fading and downward mobility is upon the land.
Is that right? Would broadly-shared growth breed less resentment, stigma, and perhaps most importantly, greater participation in the democratic institutions that are so fundamental to the character of America? If so, and to telegraph my punchline, I think MacGillis is right, how do we get there?
Economist Ben Friedman wrote a book about this — “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth” — arguing that based on the broad sweep of history across many countries, equitably shared “economic growth … more often than not fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness, and dedication to democracy.”
One can always find exceptions to sweeping averages, but Friedman’s evidence is persuasive. For a contemporary example, take Trump (please, take him far away!). He’s clearly — and with some success — tapping years of unequal growth, stagnant incomes and limited mobility among some of the same folks MacGillis is writing about, and channeling their anger towards others with a demagogic intolerance that is all too familiar from dark periods in our history.
While such relationships have many moving parts, there’s some evidence that more growth reaching more people would lead to greater support for progressive policies. Political science provides cross-country evidence that voter turnout falls as inequality rises (though the correlation for the U.S. is weak) and today’s non-voters support notably more progressive agendas than voters. And it does seem that especially given the rising share of non-whites, unmarried women and millennials — the so-called Rising American Electorate — favorable outcomes for Democrats are increasingly dependent on robust turnout.
How can we generate more equitable growth? My most recent book, “The Reconnection Agenda,” was written explicitly to answer to this question (the pdf is free, btw!). We must get to full employment, and that means better fiscal, monetary and trade policy, along with the adequate oversight of financial markets so they stop regularly inflating expansion-killing bubbles.
Friedman might add we also need faster growth. That’s a tougher call, as the growth rate is limited by underlying factors, such as productivity growth, that are harder to influence than distributional outcomes. But we’re already growing faster than most other advanced economies, and the Reconnection Agenda can also boost the growth rate.
Some economists recognize the existence of a full employment productivity multiplier. Lowering the trade deficit is also pro-growth. So is robust investment in alternative energy with an eye towards reemploying those left behind as we shift away from dirty energy sources like Kentucky’s coal. So is preventing financial bubbles.
We must also acknowledge forces pushing against this agenda. If more equitable growth would boost democratic participation through higher turnout, and if nonvoters lean Democrat, then the efforts of conservatives to suppress turnout as well as discredit government through ensuring its dysfunction make a perverse sense.
In other words, the politics are absolutely crucial here and are brought into high relief by the current campaigns. In this regard, economist Brad DeLong makes an important connection in his review of Friedman’s book. He asks why, in contrast to the Friedman hypothesis, did Americans mostly come together during the Great Recession and support lasting progressive policies like those of the New Deal? One answer is that the extent of the economic damage was so pervasive that our differences mattered less than implementing solutions.
But another is leadership. The vision of Franklin Roosevelt cannot be downplayed in understanding why the American outcome was so markedly different on behalf of true democracy than the outcomes of other countries dealing with massive economic upheaval — think Japan or Germany — in those years.
In other words, broadly shared prosperity has a lot to recommend it. By definition, more people benefit from growth, and as such, history suggests such beneficiaries manifest a greater “dedication to democracy” and tolerance for others. I suspect there’s also some feedback into faster growth itself.
The election thus places us at a crossroads. To state what’s becoming increasingly obvious, we’d better choose very carefully.