Why an Inequality Agenda Matters: A Response to John Judis

June 24, 2015

Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy cover

John Judis believes that Democrats are on the wrong path and the Roosevelt Institute is partially to blame. In his recent piece, “Dear Democrats: Populism Will Not Save You,” he attacks the growing liberal consensus on economic issues, using our recent Rewriting the Rules report as an example, on both substantive and electoral grounds.

Judis’s core argument is that it is crucial “to develop a sophisticated politics” to turn economic appeals into electoral success. I couldn’t agree more, though I feel this issue is caught in the crossfire of Judis walking back his previous Democratic demographic triumphalism. His second point is that the economic platform we’ve outlined is a terrible basis for a Democratic majority because voters are “fearful of big government, worried about new taxes, skeptical about programs they think are intended to aid someone else,” and otherwise not motivated by inequality and turned off by economic “populism.”

As a coauthor on our report and as someone involved throughout its creation, I’d like to address these criticisms. I can only speak to our report, which argues that public policy and the rules of the economy are more responsible for our tough economic situation than technology, globalization, sociology, or any of the other factors normally cited. Judis, I think, misses how robust this approach can be, how much it diverges from caricatures of big government liberalism, and how a lot of forces brought us to this point.

A Broader Vision

Roosevelt’s Rewriting the Rules plan isn’t simply centered around fighting inequality, and it’s not just about fairness, which is an argument that Judis says tends to turn off voters. Instead, we view it as tackling central concerns over investment, growth, opportunity, shared prosperity, and economic security. The subtitle of the report is “An Agenda for Growth and Shared Prosperity.” During the creation process, we kept two specific things in mind: First, nobody cares about inequality abstractly, they care about specific economic issues; and second, our vision can’t be simply returning to the past.

We do argue that you can’t address the economic concerns I mentioned without going big. You can’t tackle investment without looking at the financial sector, you can’t address opportunity without looking at structural discrimination, you can’t view economic security without looking at the labor market, and you don’t get growth without doing all of the above. But the liberal economic consensus isn’t about adjusting this or that statistical abstraction, or about building a time machine to return to an era that probably didn’t exist: It’s about solving real problems with long-term consequences for our future.

This is hard to balance, especially for an economic report that wants to highlight the latest research in inequality across fields. The team is full of economists, not political messengers. But since a forward, positive agenda is built into the DNA of these arguments, it is not hard for a talented political movement to use these economic arguments to talk about how Democrats can deliver the goods people care about when it comes to the future of the economy.

Deeper Dive into Markets

But isn’t it all just tax-and-spend and big government liberalism? As a second point, we think looking at the market structures that generate inequality in the first place is a way to both meaningfully address inequality and also move us in a different policy direction. The idea that the rules are rigged isn’t in the current dialogue, and it’s one worth testing out with the public as part of a comprehensive argument about the economy.

The policy section of the report is a call for further discussion (some of which will be elaborated on in future Roosevelt products), but what I think is important is that, in addition to higher top marginal tax rates and income support, there’s an entire suite of policies focused on the rules of the economy itself.

These are not trivial. We examine how changes to corporate governance encourage short-termism, how the ramp-up of the criminal justice system reduces wages and opportunities for people of color, and how the falling value of the minimum wage increases poverty. These “market conditioning” effects complement whatever emphasis political leaders put on tax-and-spend issues.

I think that’s worthwhile, because it gives Democrats an in to talk about economic problems with people who want to become rich or don’t think of themselves as class warriors, but do care about promoting broadly shared opportunity. It also short-circuits many of the libertarian arguments about the state, because people get that the economy needs rules—and that not having rules is still a form of rules.

(Ironically, by calling upon the work of Stephen Rose, who argues everything is fine with the macroeconomy because government transfers can just take care of any weaknesses, Judis is far more reliant on tax-and-spend liberalism that he accuses us of being. I’m fine with transfers, of course, as income support was crucial to fighting the Great Recession. But there are also electoral limits to this strategy.)

As for the electoral appeal, these ideas aren’t part of the normal policy discussion, but to the extent that they are, they are quite popular. The minimum wage is winning in red states, and financial reform is broadly popular as a topic.

The Natural Next Step

Judis’s narrative is focused on the idea that the Democrats have been hijacked (with ACORN a culprit, no less) with this agenda. At times, he forces this story into a symmetry with what is happening on the right to get some easy “pox on both houses” points.

But this doesn’t reflect the actual path we’ve taken to get here. One thing we tried to demonstrate in Rewriting the Rules is that the research has been moving in this direction for the past decade. Many of these policy items build on or expand what President Obama has proposed (infrastructure, financial reform, minimum wage, etc.)—proposals that still remain good ideas in 2016. The political success of the Fight for 15 workers has also shown that there’s energy at the local level that people are looking to help scale.

The other reason this agenda has gained traction is that the other approaches have collapsed in the past year. Education doesn’t look like the silver bullet people had believed it to be in the past. The idea that the Great Recession would be a minor hiccup and we’d be back on track has proved false. Centrist claims about the need for immediate austerity and a Grand Bargain have also failed to pan out.

Oddly, I’m not sure I’ve heard a compelling counter-strategy about how to describe the economy, and Judis proposes no such thing. The 2016 nominee won’t be able to run on an “overcoming partisanship” strategy like President Obama in 2008 or a “let’s give Obamacare and the recovery a chance” strategy like in 2012.

One could just downplay the economy, of course, and if next year gives us a large increase in wages the story will change with it. But polls now show economic issues are coming to dominate the discussion, median family incomes are down 7 percent since 2000, and the argument that President Obama pulled us back from an economic collapse and rebuilt jobs, and now we need to turn to a more secure future with better wages, investment, and security, seems the most natural transition.

Economic issues will dominate on the right, and while they mimic our language, their proposals will likely be very regressive. Even the GOP’s leading reformer, Marco Rubio, is calling for eliminating all taxes on capital and inheritances. Whoever wins the Republican nomination is going to be controlled by a base that wants the Ryan Plan immediately. But rather than simply calling out what’s wrong with the right’s approach, it will be essential for liberals to have their own vision of opportunity, investment, growth, and security. We think our report is a crucial building block for this.