Where’s the real populism?

June 13, 2015 - Official campaign launch in New York, NY

Molly Ball at the Atlantic on Hillary Clinton’s announcement speech:

Here are some things Clinton didn’t say: She didn’t directly call for higher taxes on the rich. She didn’t directly blame Wall Street or financial deregulation for the economic crisis. (In fact, she mentioned Wall Street and banks just once in the speech.) She didn’t say, as Warren frequently does, that “the game is rigged” against ordinary Americans. She didn’t mention the gap between rich and poor at all, and her two mentions of inequality (both quoted above) were indirect. CEO benefits and hedge-fund salaries weren’t directly attacked, but used as a point of contrast. Rather than rage against the perfidy and greed of the rich and powerful, as Warren routinely does, or insist that economic villains must be punished, Clinton posited that a better economy could lift all boats—that under her policies, “everybody will have a better time.”

This may seem like a subtle distinction, but it’s at the crux of the economic debate on the left. Economic liberals like Warren, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and economist Joseph Stiglitz believe inequality is structural, the result of rules and policies that benefit those at the top. The other side—centrist Democrats like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Delaware Governor Jack Markell, and John Delaney, a Democratic congressman and former financier—prefers to blame the wealth gap on globalization and technological advances.

There are, after all, two ways to fix inequality: You can lift up those at the bottom—or you can bring down those at the top. The centrists think you can narrow inequality just by lifting those at the bottom, by hiking spending on social programs and infrastructure. They believe addressing inequality doesn’t necessitate raising taxes, reining in big business, or punishing greedy CEOs. But the Warrenites think you can’t fix the problem unless you do both at once—lift those at the bottom and bring down those at the top.

Stiglitz—a Nobel Prize winner, former World Bank chief economist, and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Clinton—explicitly argued the case in a speech at the National Press Club last month, at an event hosted by the Roosevelt Institute and headlined by Warren and de Blasio. “What are the underlying drivers [of inequality]?” he asked. “A lot of people say things like globalization, technology. But those things, globalization and technology, are global.” Yet the United States has by far the lowest equality of opportunity of any advanced country, he said. “What does that tell us? … It’s about policies—policies and politics.”

The report that Stiglitz authored for the Roosevelt Institute is called “Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy.” The bulk of its recommendations concern what it calls “Taming the Top”—bringing Wall Street and economic elites to heel through a slew of new taxes, regulations, and incentives. “The Dodd-Frank Act was an excellent start,” the report states, “but the legislation did not change the structure of the dysfunctional system. Further reform can and should reduce the risks of the financial sector to the economy as a whole.”

Clinton tiptoed up to some of these ideas in her speech, but she stopped short of embracing them. Echoing Stiglitz, she said global forces weren’t solely to blame for middle-class economic difficulty: “Advances in technology and the rise of global trade,” she said, had “displaced jobs and undercut wages”—but “the choices we’ve made as a nation, leaders and citizens alike, have also played a big role.” Nonetheless, for those anxious to “tame the top,” Clinton offered precious little.

Some on the left worry that this is intentional—that Clinton purposely left herself wiggle room for a set of economic policies that will seek to lift the middle class without troubling Wall Street much. Saying, as Clinton did, that everybody will be better off “refuses to pick a side when some interests are against others—namely, when big corporations are trying to hurt workers or consumers,” Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told me. “This unwillingness to name villains and say publicly that someone will have to lose power is what really worries progressives.”

Based on the way the speech has been received, Clinton appears to be getting credit for a populism she didn’t really espouse. While she spoke on Roosevelt Island, her rhetoric of shared prosperity was a far cry from that of F.D.R, who called out monopolists, reckless bankers, and profiteers as “enemies of peace,” and declared, “I welcome their hatred.” In fact, the most populist line in Clinton’s speech may have been one she didn’t write. Quoting F.D.R., she called for “the ending of special privilege for the few.” The audience of loyal Democrats erupted in cheers. It was one of the biggest applause lines of the speech.

One thought on “Where’s the real populism?

  1. Everyone will do better sounds EXACTLY like the carnival barkers that spent decades promoting trickle-down.

    It doesn’t work, never has. And it’s not like higher taxes actually causes the wealthy any pain. It doesn’t return them to some lower level of wealthy. They possess so much that it merely limits their capacity to move from ultra rich to obscenely rich.

    The health of the middle class and the potential for the poor to gain a little only occurs with higher taxes on the rich.

    All else is mere bullshit.

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