Shared Growth vs. Redistribution

I can’t find a transcript just yet of Hillary Clinton’s big economic speech this morning at the New School. But all the teasers her campaign tossed out indicated an “inequality” speech that focused on benefits that could boost middle-class incomes–pre-k/child care, paid family leave, higher minimum wages, etc.–along with less specific but progressive-pleasing talk about the need for closing high-end and corporate tax shelters, restoring collective bargaining rights, and maybe even instituting some tougher regulation of Wall Street.

But even though Clinton is expected to make “shared growth” a touchstone of her economic rhetoric, WaPo’s Jim Tankersley hit on something important today that will continue to sharply distinguish her from Bernie Sanders beyond her reluctance to embrace a return to the Glass-Steagall Act or to attack the Trans-Pacific Partnership:

There are very few unspoken rules among major-party candidates for president, and Bernie Sanders is breaking one of them. He’s saying that America’s leaders shouldn’t worry so much about economic growth if that growth serves to enrich only the wealthiest Americans.

“Our economic goals have to be redistributing a significant amount of [wealth] back from the top 1 percent,” Sanders said in a recent interview, even if that redistribution slows the economy overall.

“Unchecked growth – especially when 99 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent – is absurd,” he said. “Where we’ve got to move is not growth for the sake of growth, but we’ve got to move to a society that provides a high quality of life for all of our people. In other words, if people have health care as a right, as do the people of every other major country, then there’s less worry about growth. If people have educational opportunity and their kids can go to college and they have child care, then there’s less worry about growth for the sake of growth.”

Sanders’s position inverts decades of orthodoxy among liberal and conservative candidates alike, by prizing redistribution above all else. It taps into the mounting frustration in America, particularly among more liberal voters, with the widening gap between the rich and everyone else.

It’s not just a matter of liberal politicians “balancing” redistribution with growth so as to give everybody a reason to vote for them on rising-tide-raises-all-boats grounds. No, they’ve generally sought to demonstrate that progressive social policies ranging from universal health coverage to anti-discrimination laws to “investments” in infrastructure and education are crucial to growth as well as equity.

I don’t know if Sanders’ approach is inspired by a quasi-environmental objection to perpetual growth or simply by impatience at growth being used as an excuse to drag feet on equality. But it is indeed different. For eons Republicans have accused Democrats of being “redistributionists” at the expense of growth, and Democrats have denied it. Sanders is basically saying “So what?” We’ll see how it plays.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.