On Peter Robinson’s thread about Mike Murphy yesterday, we read that Republicans have a problem with substance, in addition to packaging. The substance problem is what we’re saying to the middle class.*
So, in the comments section, I asked: What exactly is the Republican message to the middle class? Thus far, several people liked my comment, which indicates they might have the same question. As yet, however, I haven’t seen anyone respond to that specific question.
So – at the risk of revealing my stupidity yet again – let’s see if we can start a conversation to come up with an answer.
Occasionally I do penance by reading liberals. I saw an article on Slate by Matt Yglesias, who, like a blind squirrel, wrote something interesting (not true, but interesting). He offered this:
… conservatives need to get over their gut-level hostility to "redistribition" [sic: misspelled in the original] in order to find an intellectually respectable way of making their agenda relevant to middle-class concerns. The sensible parts of Douthat's column offer perhaps another way of looking at this. In much of the aughts, the GOP seemed to be pushing an unpopular, elite-focused economic agenda and getting away with it by yoking it to a popular social conservative agenda. But with public opinion rapidly shifting on gay equality and the demographic composition of the electorate shifting, that particular combo doesn't work as well as it used to. The way back could involve shifting economic policy for social conservative reasons exactly as the extensive welfare states in Sweden and France are designed, in part, to specifically promote the interests of people with kids.
Lately on Ricochet, we’ve heard a few calls for Republicans to push their economic agenda, and not get dragged down by social concerns. Here, Yglesias and Douthat argue the opposite; the reason the economic agenda was palatable in the first place was because it was yoked to the more popular social agenda.
Hehehehehehe. OK, moving on …
Yglesias’ article cites Josh Barro. I don’t agree with Barro’s solution, but his description of the problem strikes me as accurate:
The problem with rising inequality is not that lower-income families can't afford ever-cheaper electronics; it's that they can't keep pace with the rising costs of health care, education and (in certain parts of the country) housing. There's also no reason to think that, whatever standard of living we start from, an economy where nearly all the improvements accrue to a small fraction of families is either politically sustainable or morally acceptable.
Inequality. Barro follows with a reply to the obvious objection:
Lower taxes and a smaller government might raise GDP growth, but there's no particular reason to assume that growth would accrue in a more equal manner than we have experienced recently. The main effect of Ryan-style fiscal policy, which makes taxes both lower and less progressive and while shrinking benefits, would be a rise in after-tax inequality.
If the Republican Party and specifically conservatives want to persuade anyone, I think we need to explain how our economic ideas will address such inequality.
A couple points:
- It doesn’t matter if economic theorists have complex explanations about inequality. What matters is what we can explain to the public. Their healthcare and education bills are going up, but their paycheck isn’t. If conservatives argue that we have to loosen burdens on the rich so that they’ll provide more jobs, how do we answer their objection that when we did that before, it didn’t work … because the bills kept going up and their paychecks have been flat for decades?
- Say what you want about unions, they were one way to prevent management and owners from keeping all the profits. Is there any way to persuade workers that they could share in the profits if they were the ones who increased productivity?
- If a worker makes a business better, how does he reap reward? If it’s solely on the hope that we must trust the employer to do the right thing … well, the evidence doesn’t prove that they’ve done that. Wages have remained flat.
Before the election, I didn’t think equality was that big a problem. But now, I think the election smacked me in the head. it’s a glaring political problem. I now believe that unless we address the inequality question, nothing else we say will be attractive to the voting public.
I welcome your thoughts. And if you think I’m completely wrong, please say why – I’ll happily change my mind, if given a reason to do so.
* apologies to Jay Nordlinger, who correctly hates the term “middle class,” but hey, it’s handy here.