A Note on the Political Economy of Populism: All indications are that President Obama will make inequality the central theme of his State of the Union address. Assuming he does, he will face two different kinds of sniping. One will come from the usual suspects on the right, shrieking “class warfare”. The other will come from a variety of people, some of them well-intentioned, arguing that while sure, inequality is an issue, the crucial thing now is to get the economy growing and create more jobs; these people will argue that populism is a diversion from the main issue.
Here’s why they’re wrong.
First of all, even on the straight economics inequality and job creation aren’t completely separable issues. ...
Beyond that, there’s the political economy.
It has been painfully obvious, to anyone willing to see (a group that unfortunately doesn’t include a large part of the press corps) that deficit obsession hasn’t really been about deficits — it has been about using deficits as a club with which to smash to welfare state, and hence increase inequality. ...
Conversely, talking about the need to help struggling families is ... a way to shift the focus away from deficit obsession, and pave the way at least for a relaxation of austerity, if not actual stimulus.
And I think we also have to face up to an awkward political reality: moderate populism has a broad popular constituency, Keynesian macroeconomics doesn’t..., the public doesn’t “get” macroeconomics; lines like “American families are having to tighten their belts, so the government should too” still resonate. You could blame Obama for not using the bully pulpit to teach the nation why this is wrong, and I wish he had made more of a stand. Still, the fact is that this is just a hard story to get across...
So if I were Obama, I’d do what he’s apparently doing: focus on inequality, which is a valid and popular issue, and use it indirectly to move macro policy in the right direction too.
To follow up on the previous post, capitalism is the best economic system yet discovered for producing economic growth, but it also concentrates risk and causes people to face hardship through no fault of their own (e.g. a recession that puts someone out of work, someone who shows up for work everyday and does their job well). The solution to this is for either the private sector or the government to provide insurance against these risks -- and market failures mean it is generally the government that must step in. Yes, that means transfers from the winners to the less fortunate, much as those with fire insurance who have good outcomes -- no fire -- find their insurance premiums transferred to those who do have the bad luck to experience a fire. But the risks inherent in the system that makes those at the top so wealthy, and those at the bottom so miserable must be attenuated through government provided insurance. Unemployment insurance is a good example of this, but more social insurance is needed to protect the vulnerable from risks they had no hand in creating (e.g. the financial crisis caused great pain for workers who had nothing at all to do with creating the problems that caused the Great Recession, while those who benefitted from the lead up to the crisis and had a hand in causing it, those who are doing very well now, whine incessantly if they are asked to help to reduce the hardship of the innocent).