Politicians across the political spectrum have usually framed at least a part of their campaign message as an appeal to “protecting the the middle class.” And perhaps no politician in recent years has done that as well, or at least as often, as President Obama. (For more on this, check out Collision 2012 by Dan Balz).
Generally, I find these appeals rather perplexing. I’m not rich and I’m not poor. Am I middle class? If so, how does being middle class align me politically with other middle class neighbors who burn their leaves, vote against school levies and oppose gay marriage? Candidates should simply address directly the issues I care about rather than attempt to pander to a part of my voter profile.
This approach could be more appealing if it came with an explanation of why a strong middle class is important for the economy and society—particularly if was delivered in a manner more engaging than reading a Paul Samuelson text book. You know, something between pandering and ponderous.
Fortunately, there have been some attempts to step into this breach. For instance, Nick Hanauer, in a TED talk, explains how he believes a strong middle class is essential to a healthy capitalist economy. Rich people don’t create jobs, he argues. The middle class with its purchases creates jobs.
The Economic Policy Institute has created a website packed with cute animations and entertaining sounds that seek to demonstrate how income inequality was created and why it is bad. Another video making the Internet rounds simply seeks to demonstrate how income inequality is considerably worse than what we perceive it to be.
I’m looking forward to seeing “Inequality for All” when it comes to my locally owned downtown theater. The movie focuses on Robert Reich, former Secretary of Department of Labor for President Clinton, who also is an economics and public policy professor.
By piecing together recent lecture highlights, illustrated by entertaining B roll and many charts and graphs, Reich addresses the economic squeeze of the middle class in terms that, according to reviews, are easy to understand. Perhaps, more relevant to my sensibility, he argues that the aggregation of wealth negatively affects everyone, regardless of their income or class status.
Reich argues that a more fair distribution of wealth and income is essential to a well-functioning economy. Both Reich and Hanauer contend that its not so much that the rich are incredibly wealthy but rather that they’re not spending enough of it to grow our economy. The notion that taxes on the rich choke off investment pales compared to the direct investment that those in the middle make every day when they burn up their paychecks for food, clothing, gas, furniture, movies, etc. The problem, Reich states, is that as more of our economy’s wealth accumulates at the upper strata, the less it circulates into our economy.
Critics of these income inequality messages pine that these analyses do not include the value transfer associated with public programs such as education, poverty income and food assistance and other human services. An interesting point given how these programs are under siege from those who believe their costs are not worthy of raising taxes on the rich to support.
Both the Economic Policy Institute and Inequality for All website have a call to action that lays out a platform of issues, including raising the minimum wage and a more progressive tax structure.
Sadly, campaign reform only gets a little play on one of the sites. With the Citizen United decision making it possible for unlimited spending on campaigns, the continued aggregation of wealth has serious consequences to our democracy as well as our economy. I don’t need a simple explanation to make sense out of that one.