I hope it doesn’t become too obvious that economics is not my “trump card.” But what American is sufficiently insulated from local or national economic policy to the point where he or she can ignore it? Who, in however inchoate a way, doesn’t imagine exclusively economic solutions to their own or the nation’s problems? We know darn well from the evidence that the outcome of elections are very often determined by economic factors, or whether or not a majority of the electorate is feeling economically secure or optimistic. You’ll no doubt recall that cynical, flat-footed declaration by Democrat advisor/pundit James Carville prior to Bill Clinton’s election, “it’s the economy, stupid.” And a temporarily flagging national economy probably did do in the Presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush.
This is why I recently became intrigued by an ideological struggle between center-right policy makers and pundits who seems, however unconsciously, to have put themselves in the same column with so-called “progressives.” Both groups — on the right and left — seem to be adopting a similar, government-oriented solution for solving the gaping economic divide between the managerial elite and wage-earners. This has, in part, created the “grievance culture” that fueled a populist revolt and given us Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, we are being reminded about millions of Americans — a very consequential political constituency — who are neither corporate managers nor hourly wage-earners and who, some pundits believe, are being neglected by politicians and policy-makers of both Parties. They are the shop owners, the self-employed, the small-scale entrepreneurs — and also those salaried employees working to save their money, bolster their credentials and aspire to break out and move up the economic ladder. (In this last group, I would point a long-time friend, former Sixties radical, now well advance in age, whose politics remain darn near Marxist yet whose personal aspiration and financial restlessness long ago prompted him to break out of the worker-wage earner box, start his own business, and achieve a wonderful economic independence that has afforded him and his wife a comfortable retirement. This sounds like The American Dream, even if my friend and possibly millions like him remain deeply critical of America, especially of its health care and military policies.)
Nonetheless, a new liberal/moderate breed of worker advocate has emerged, based on an analysis by Ryan Streeter, director of domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He says their solution to worker discontent has been a combination of protectionism, wage-subsidies, paid parental leave, generous child tax credits, cash allowances, new forms of unionization, etc.. The vestigial Democrat moderate in me finds things to like in that agenda. But Streeter reminds us that we are forgetting about the considerable contributions of those small-scale entrepreneurs and small business owners who resist that kind of expensive and expanding government assistance.
Streeter acknowledges that conservative policies neglected the needs of workers in the past. As a consequence, equal resentment against liberal tax-and-spend policies and conservative to moderate open borders/open trade policies have, again, gone a long way toward getting populist- protectionist Donald Trump in the White House.
Question: Has this loose liberal-moderate alliance done anything to boost the economic opportunities, entrepreneurial creativity and upward mobility of the average American? Streeter maintains that they have not; that only the hourly worker has seen his prospects marginally rise on the fortunes of high-tech and other corporate moguls who are the real ones getting rich or richer — while those same hourly workers spends their days, to cite one example, piecing together circuit boards while always facing the prospect of a lay-off should some unforeseen economic disaster — like a pandemic — come along.
So we’re taking about “grievance populism” versus real populism, the latter based on self-reliance and risk-taking. This was, many traditional conservatives maintain, the essence of the Reagan revolution. And while Ronald Reagan is forever caricatured by the left as a tax-cutting friend to big business, he could — as his scores of admirers will remind us — be more accurately seen as the promoter of free-market policies and an entrepreneurial spirit that unleashed a self-reliant, creative citizenry.
Well, I can hear the howls of derision from the left — and maybe even from the middle. But let’s honestly think about this. Weren’t we — most of us who seized our opportunities back in the Eighties — better off? What does grievance-fueled capitalism, populism or socialism do to inspire the human spirit to “invent and create,” those being the words Reagan used in addressing the board of governors of theWorld Bank and International Monetary Fund in 1981? “Only when individuals are given a personal stake in deciding economic policies and benefiting from their success,” Reagan said, “only then can societies remain alive, dynamic, prosperous, progressive and free.”
In this manner — so the reasoning goes — even hourly wage-earners, salaried employees along with small business owners have the incentive to come up with new ways of doing things.
But so many politicians — Donald Trump sometimes, Elizabeth Warren all the time — maintain that the game is rigged in favor of the self-enriching managerial elite. Critics see the brand of thinking that pits the corporation versus the worker as the road to economic stagnation. But just as many maintain that “managerial capitalism” long ago put “entrepreneurial capitalism” to the sword.
I hope they are wrong. And, you know what? I was hearing the same diagnosis in college sociology classes way back in the Sixties. In between came Nixon’s wage-and-price controls, a Ford era recession, massive inflation under Jimmy Carter — then the Reagan revolution and promises of “morning in America.” We prospered — but more importantly, we regained our confidence as a nation. That’s my opinion.
Meanwhile, Ryan Streeter maintains populist anti-elitism is more cultural than economic. He says an American Enterprise Institute survey recently found working-class Americans with no college degree in the lower economic percentiles actually bullish about their economic prospects. Culturally, let’s face it, the managerial elite have gone to war with middle America in alliance with Hollywood and the media. This has disenchanted and repulsed many in middle America. But, when we speak of economics, Ryun Streeter, writing in the March 9 National Review, maintained that a policy agenda “focused on the Main Street flower shop owner, jewelry-maker selling earrings on Etsy (and) the former delivery service driver who borrowed enough to lease two trucks and hire six people to start a local moving company…would likely have as much appeal to American workers as one focused on wage subsidies and tax credits.”
In this election year, we’re being called upon to think hard about these things. As you can see, I’m thinking out loud here. What do you think?