The Inequality Debate We Aren't Having

Hillary Clinton's big economic speech contained one glaring omission.

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged Inequality

Hillary Clinton’s much-anticipated speech on the economy combined familiar Democratic ideas (immigration reform, an infrastructure bank, clean energy investment) with newly ascendant priorities of the Obama-era party: a higher minimum wage, new rules on overtime labor, “enhancements” to Social Security, and (perhaps most notably) paid family leave and universal pre-K. As Democratic policy wishlists go, it’s pretty thorough, and at points even somewhat ambitious. Nonetheless, there is a striking omission—one that illustrates lingering shortcomings of center-left economic thinking in the post-Obama era.

Although they’ve lost much of their former skittishness when it comes to speaking frankly about inequality, Democrats still have difficulty articulating just what about the problem is so troubling. The speech is illustrative in this respect: at no point does the word “citizenship” appear (the closest reference is one brief mention of “concerned citizens”). “Common” appears once, in reference to the global economy. “Public” surfaces five times. And the section on inequality opens as follows: “The evidence is in: Inequality is a drag on our entire economy, so this is the problem we need to tackle.”

This phrasing suggests that inequality is “the problem we need to tackle” because it’s “a drag on our entire economy.” This is fitting for a speech that stresses growth (mentioned 29 times), but it’s nonetheless a missed opportunity. The implication of Clinton’s line is that if inequality weren’t a drag on the economy, it would be a lower priority, a less serious problem, or (worse yet) perhaps no problem at all. That last formulation edges perilously close to a common conservative shrug: inequality results from the market rewarding skill and hard work, and so it’s the laudable sign of a healthy economy.

Obviously, Clinton didn’t mean to suggest anything like that. But the speech’s criticism of inequality’s economic effects chooses to debate an empirical question that’s probably most interesting to policy experts (does inequality hurt growth?), rather than a debate about citizenship that’s important to everybody (does inequality hurt democracy?). In a recent interview, the eminent historian Eric Foner lamented that “liberalism has no vocabulary today to talk about the economic crisis this country is facing.” It’s hard not to feel some sympathy with this charge when severe, entrenched inequality—which locks in a permanent political advantage for the wealthy and drowns out the voice of most other citizens—is attacked for its effect on GDP, not citizenship.

Inequality strikes at the heart of democracy, period. Even if it were good for the economy, it would be bad for democracy. Saying this forthrightly not only has the virtue of being true. It would lead to a real debate with conservatives, who have spent the last several decades twisting the relationship between equality and freedom—insisting that the real threat to freedom did not lie in the rise of a semi-oligarchy, but in attempts to do something about it. This is a bad argument whose success was promoted by a false dichotomy between freedom and equality (and by mangling the meanings of both terms). Its rise was similarly enabled by an impoverished conception of citizenship—one so weak that, even in an age of unprecedented inequality, the left-wing party still feels safest when treating the problem in terms of growth. A shift in public thinking on these issues would be massively helpful for the agenda of the American left, just as the mainstreaming of conservative ideology served the right for so long. But that change won’t happen unless somebody argues for it.

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Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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