The Magazine

A Real Equality Agenda

Let’s redistribute power, not income.

Feb 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 21 • By JAY COST
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Barack Obama’s latest State of the Union address was a dreary, tiresome affair—which, to be fair, could be said of most such addresses by most modern presidents. The only real surprise was how he soft-pedaled the problem of inequality. Pre-speech hype had promised this would be the centerpiece theme, and it’s certainly one that has been a hobbyhorse of his Democratic party since its founding. But perhaps, on deeper reflection, we should not be so surprised that the word itself was only mentioned once.

Cost

Obama delivers his 2014 State of the Union address.

NEWSCOM

President Andrew Jackson’s veto message regarding the Second Bank of the United States is a mishmash of bad economic reasoning and dubious constitutional arguments, but at its most persuasive it rails against the capacity of government to reinforce the divisions between the rich and the poor. A half-century later, the Democrats rediscovered their inner Jacksonian as William Jennings Bryan similarly waged a holy crusade for indebted Western farmers being “crucified” upon “a cross of gold” erected by Eastern creditors.

It is strangely embarrassing to watch today’s Democrats struggle to lift the banner that Jackson and Bryan once raised with ease. After all, today’s party more or less represents the very interests that so enraged their 19th-century forebears. Take a stroll through New York’s Upper East Side, and you will mostly encounter Obama voters. Drive along California’s famed 101 from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and you will not enter a single county that went for Romney. At the corner of Wall and Broad, the movers-and-shakers walking past you will be about as likely to have given to the Donkeys as to the Elephants.

This probably explains why Obama only trotted out an inequality agenda in year six of his presidency, with his power at its nadir, instead of in year one, when it was at its apex. Haranguing the plutocrats is what 21st-century Democrats do only to rebuild their support in flyover country; when that base is secure, the malefactors of great wealth suddenly do not seem so bad. 

For instance, a few years ago, Democrats endlessly complained about the ban on reimportation of drugs from Canada. These days, they do not mention it at all, though the ban persists. This was not because of a change of heart, but a change of status. When Obama was on the outside trying to get in, he railed against the pharmaceutical industry; when he finally made it in, he cut a deal with Big Pharma that kept the ban in place in exchange for industry backing of Obamacare.

Putting aside the Democratic party’s situational ethics, what can we say about Obama’s agenda? In his State of the Union, he called for tax reform, more money for infrastructure spending, subsidies for tech companies and scientific research, more job training, universal pre-K education, promoting “equal pay for equal work” for women, and raising the minimum wage. These are fairly stale policy prescriptions, but from a political standpoint there is something to be said for wrapping them up in a call to end inequality. After all, who is opposed to that? How can anybody oppose giving the poorest workers a raise, or guaranteeing universal pre-K, without coming across like Ebenezer Scrooge? More broadly, how can conservatives hope to build a broad-based political coalition against a left making these sorts of populist appeals?

One thing they should certainly do is highlight the deep problems with Obama’s agenda. The first, and most obvious, is that the government has demonstrated a knack for being a perpetrator of the very ailments Obama promises to ameliorate. Just as the economic marketplace creates winners and losers, so also does the political marketplace. In important respects, the political marketplace is worse, for political winners get to embed their privileges into the law itself. It is fair to ask: How can one trust a government to solve the very problem it has helped create?

Indeed, Obama’s address inadvertently referenced the government’s proclivity to play favorites. The minimum wage is a hallowed talking point for wealthy liberals posing as hardscrabble populists, but in fact its original purpose was to serve as a sort of domestic tariff. By 1937 Northern industries had come to terms with organized labor, but the South still resisted. Fearing a flight of capital to Dixie, it was Northern businessmen who made the difference in pushing a minimum wage through Congress. 

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