The conservative trickle-down approach to the economy assumes that maximizing rewards for those at the top is the path to both growth and prosperity for the society as a whole. If inequality rises, that does not matter, runs the conservative argument, because absolute levels of prosperity will rise for everyone even if the top gains more.
The progressive approach to the economy is radically different. This approach posits, based on a mass of accumulating evidence, that inequality is not a benign byproduct of growth, but rather a toxic barrier to both middle class prosperity and strong growth in general. In other words, high levels of inequality interfere with the both the quality and quantity of growth experienced by a society. Hence the idea that an economic agenda must concentrate on lifting up the middle class to generate both broadly-shared prosperity and fast growth. The two goals are inextricably linked and one cannot be attained without the other.
Of course, the progressive agenda may be the correct one, but that does not mean it can be easily sold to the public and politicians. It would require a serious reorientation of national priorities and considerable investments in areas like education and infrastructure–spending that is likely to meet considerable resistance in the current environment. Therefore, the question of how to frame the agenda in the political marketplace is key.
One obvious approach is to frame the agenda directly as a means of reducing inequality. Call this the redistributionist approach. This approach is not without merit. Start with awareness of and views about economic inequality.
There is no doubt Americans are aware of rising inequality. In the Pew Research Center’s 2012 American Values survey, respondents were asked if they agreed that today the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. About three-quarters (76 percent) agreed, while just 23 percent disagreed. And the public believes it’s not just the poor who are losing ground to the rich—it’s the middle class as well. In the same survey three-quarters (76 percent) also say the gap between the standards of living of the middle class and the rich grew over the last decade, compared to just 16 percent who think it narrowed.
No wonder that a poll from October 2011 conducted by Pulse Opinion Research for The Hill found that two in three Americans believe that the middle class is now shrinking. And in a Democracy Corps post-2010 election survey, the public endorsed the idea that America is no longer a country with a rising middle class by 57-36. Finally, an October, 2007 poll conducted by political scientists Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs for their book, Class War: What Americans Really Think about Economic Inequality, found 81 percent of the public saying that the gap in wealth between wealthy Americans and the middle class has grown over the last 25 years, compared to just 10 percent who said it has remained the same and 8 percent who said it had gotten smaller.