The chattering classes have been enjoying a good laugh these last few days over Mitt Romney’s apparently sudden conversion to the cause of ending inequality in America. It should be obvious why. The former Massachusetts governor based much of his 2012 presidential campaign on the quintessential (and far from nutty) modern Republican and conservative belief in what Democrats and liberals are too quick to dismiss as “trickle-down economics.”
I’m not interested today in entering the debate over trickle-down. Nor am I interested in scoring anti-Romney “gotcha” points. Instead, I’m impressed by the Romney statement’s potential to spark a badly needed debate among those to the right of center about inequality-related issues – including whether its elimination should be an explicit goal of American economic policy to begin with.
The answer (answers?) is hardly a no-brainer. There are some excellent reasons for wanting to end or at least narrow the gap between rich and poor in this country. It’s a totally defensible moral goal. It could bolster democracy by at least watering down the impact of the very wealthy on American politics. And according to many to the left of center lately, reducing inequality could give the still inadequately recovering U.S. economy a needed lift.
There are also some excellent reasons for not caring much about inequality. For example, as long as incomes for everyone go up (and recently, they haven’t been), what’s so wrong with the already wealthy getting more than an equal share? Couldn’t the free-marketeers be right in pointing out that, unless investor and risk-takers can reap outsized rewards, they won’t make those investments that boost growth for everyone’s benefit? Speaking of morality, couldn’t an explicit focus on inequality excessively reward mediocrity or sloth? Moreover, it’s far from clear that an anti-inequality campaign would be great politics. Numerous polls show that the great majority of Americans are more concerned with creating more growth, period – because they seem to believe in the basic assumptions behind trickle-down.
Again, I’m not interested in debating any of this substantively right now. What’s important is that noting that, if Republicans really want to go down this road, they need to understand why. After all, it’s hard to imagine a political strategy succeeding unless there’s broad understanding of why it’s been chosen. But even more important, if Republicans start championing inequality, they’re going to be portrayed as flip-floppers, and rightly so, since they’ve never emphasized this theme before. The only exception I can think of is that claim that inequality can juice growth. And of course, if Republicans start making that argument, they’ll need to answer more questions about how exactly they’re different from Democrats.
Mr. Romney didn’t address any of these questions in his remarks last Friday in a conference of Republicans in San Diego. In fairness, it wasn’t an occasion for detailed policy proposals. Further, I’m sure the party is hardly short of spin-doctors capable of coming up with inequality talking points and narratives that could contain some of the above conceptual problems. And it’s possible (at least in theory) that Republicans could unite around a game-changing inequality-reducing proposal – like getting rid of the Federal Reserve, or curbing its powers. The idea here would be that the super-loose money policies have greatly widened the rich-poor gap by inflating the prices of all sorts of financial assets (which are of course disproportionately held by the wealthy).
But barring an idea this radical, Republicans are likeliest to discover although imitating Democrats even partly on inequality may be the sincerest form of flattery, it’s no way to win elections.