Left Turn (Reducing Inequality, continued)

It appears that President Obama’s address on inequality was the beginning of a larger move to the left and an embrace of economic populism. As Edward-Issac Dovere  (Politico) explains:

[Obama is] connecting to progressive populism with an aggressive, spending-oriented, activist government approach to the economy personified by Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio. Obama’s already backed raising the minimum wage, the start of what White House officials say will be a 2014 domestic agenda — including his State of the Union address and budget — that centers around income inequality and what the government is doing to increase economic mobility.


Obama needs his base invested to help him recover from his low poll numbers and give his party a platform as Democrats try to make the House competitive and hold onto to their majority in the Senate. And those in the coalition that won Obama two elections — young people, African-Americans, Latinos, single women and immigrants — are precisely the ones hit hardest by the doldrum economy.

Will this strategy succeed? The answer would seem to hinge on three things.

  1. Success in shifting the focus from the sluggish economy (e.g., the “jobs deficit,” problems of long-term unemployment, dramatic reductions in the labor force participation rate) to inequality in income distributions and the claim that these inequalities (rather than economic policy or the intrinsic problems of recovering from a financial crisis) have impeded recovery.
  2. Success in convincing voters that the correct policy response to this situation is an expansion of social policy expenditures (e.g., increases in Social Security) and a higher minimum wage
  3. Success in convincing voters that they should, in essence, vote themselves a raise in the 2014 midterm elections since there are limits to what can be achieved through executive action.

I am skeptical that this strategy will succeed for a host of reasons (e.g., the contours of public opinion, the likelihood that ongoing problems with Obamacare implementation will dominate the news, the President’s lack of follow through on priorities announced in the State of the Union). But given the poor economic performance since the financial collapse there is likely a growing pool of desperate  voters open to these claims. They may  apply a sufficiently high discount rate to the future that the long-term fiscal consequences of expanded social policy expenditures will not matter much.

For those who are interested in reading more, see Alex Pareene, “Why Elizabeth Warren Baffles Pundits” (Salon), Frank James, “Is Economic Populism a Problem or a Solution for Democrats?” (NPR) and Third Way’s John Cowan and Jim Kessler’s op-ed (WSJ), “Economic Populism is Dead”

3 thoughts on “Left Turn (Reducing Inequality, continued)

  1. At least now we can deal with an open plea for socialism/planned economy to equalize outcomes. We now have the well publicized failure of an attempt at central planning – Obamacare. I predict that it will continue to fail as the incompetence of the architects results in more and more visible unintended consequences.

  2. This problem (wealth inequality) arose with the voting balance of power in America changing from a voting majority of Economic Class producers to a voting majority of net tax consumers ensconced in the Political Class. That is, the number of voters dependent on government largess (government employees,retired government employees and “entitlement” recipients) are now in the voting majority. In the end,what we are witnessing is the end result of a Welfare State out of control. As the current Obama Administration and it’s mostly Democrat cohorts in Congress derive most of their power from the votes of the Political Class it is only a matter of time before the Economic Class in America is bankrupted. When that happens the American economy will be wrecked beyond repair. What is happening today in America is not new in history. It was exactly what happened in Rome over 1500 years ago. It is only history repeating itself.

  3. Marc, I think your concerns here are well-taken. If we set aside: (1) the concerns that people are just poor, perhaps abjectly so, and (2) the concerns that some people treat others unjustly (and that government may often be the very tool by which that occurs, then it becomes very hard to see why we should be concerned with inequality at all. This is true for any material good, whether outcomes or the material proxies for “opportunity.” There simply is no justification, moral or otherwise, for doing so. This is a hard-won conclusion but one which academic philosophers are beginning to accept, and other thoughtful people should stop taking seriously the idea that equality matters. Poverty matters, and injustice matters, but neither is the same as concern for equality, and it’s important to keep that clear.

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