President Obama has talked quite a lot about inequality lately, most recently in his State of the Union address. Progressives have gone after him for it, with some arguing that he’s distracting from jobs and others suggesting he isn’t talking about inequality enough. But they’re wrong on both counts: inequality really is a winning issue, and Obama’s couching of it in terms of “equal opportunity” makes the argument stronger, not weaker.
While the conservative backlash has been predictable, Obama’s emphasis on inequality has prompted some backlash from those arguing that the main problem today is jobs rather than inequality. Is this a fair criticism? It’s certainly true that in the short run jobs does look like the most serious problem. To boot, as Jared Bernstein and Mike Konczal have pointed out, there are few programs that would have more of a positive effect on inequality than achieving full employment.
So should we be talking mostly about jobs and stimulus and turning down the volume on inequality? Paul Krugman dissents, rightly arguing that progressives must “face up to an awkward political reality: moderate populism has a broad popular constituency, Keynesian macroeconomics doesn’t.”
A recent Pew poll bears out Krugman’s point. Sixty-five percent of Americans said the gap between the rich and everyone else in the US has been increasing the last 10 years, and by a 60-36 margin, respondents said the economic system in the country unfairly favors the wealthy, as opposed to being fair to most Americans. Americans think inequality is both unfair and getting worse.
That theme of “everyone else” versus the top is dramatically underscored by results from a recent Hart Research poll conducted for the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Americans today overwhelmingly believe that the single most important goal for the nation’s economic future is creating an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy few (the pollsters call this concept “everyone economics”). While voters also rate many other goals as priorities -– job creation, a strong future for the next generation, a stronger middle class –- none resonate nearly as strongly as having an economy that works for all Americans. And no other critique better captures Americans’ economic anxiety than the idea that our economic system now benefits only the wealthy and corporations, while the deck is stacked against everyone else.
This suggests that not only is populism the right approach for progressives to take, but that populism should be pitched in a particular way. Everyone economics is consistent with an inclusive populism, rather than favoring one class over another. Instead of merely replacing the rich with the middle income folk as America’s “most favored” class, progressives should pitch their policies as a means of leveling the playing field for everyone.
For Americans, this is a moral, as well as an economic, story. The public believes that virtuous behavior (especially hard work) is not being properly rewarded today because of barriers erected by the wealthy and powerful. Three-quarters agree that “the rules in America have changed — hard work and sacrifice are not rewarded anymore,” while for 63 percent,providing more opportunity to those who work hard and struggle to provide for their families is a high priority.
Obama has also received some pushback for framing much of his talk about inequality in terms of opportunity rather than redistribution. But it’s better to think about the opportunity language as complimentary, rather than opposed to, the inequality arguments he and other leading progressives often employ.
In fact, the Hart data suggests that opportunity talk is actually the most effective way to challenge inequality. It is unquestionably true that the reality of large and growing inequality in America is shaping Americans’ perception of what is wrong with their economy and how it needs to change. But the Hart survey shows clearly that the specific language of “equality” (and “inequality”) is not the best way to speak to these concerns. Instead, Americans want to see expanded opportunity, especially for those who demonstrate effort through hard work. What worries them is less the size of statistical gaps in income or wealth, and more their sense that the system is rigged in favor of the powerful to prevent average people from having opportunities to move up the ladder.
This is why Americans are more focused on providing opportunity to everyone than on narrowing income inequality per se. By a solid 26-point margin, voters say their priority is to make sure everyone in the country has a real opportunity to succeed more than reducing the gap between the richest 1 percent and the rest of the country. And while 38 percent cite “economic opportunity” as an important quality for today’s economy, just 21 percent say the same for “economic equality.”
The most effective way to sell the progressive vision for the economy is everyone economics language focusing on providing opportunity for those who lack it today, not simply taking from some and giving to others. That’s is precisely what Obama was seeking to do with his emphasis on “ladders of opportunity” and he was right to do so.