Many people view last night’s State of the Union Address to be the kick off of the 2016 Presidential Campaign. If that is true than it will be very interesting to see if a major political party can win the Presidency by admitting that the American Dream is dead or at least needs an assist from government.
President Obama laid out a series of policies that are directly aimed at the middle class in an attempt to help them to have a chance to achieve the Dream. These policies, including increased child credits, paid medical leave, free community college, and a middle class tax break will be paid for by tax increases on the 0.1%. Not exactly allowing the invisible hand to work its magic!
The SOTU is the latest salvo in a series that includes numerous proposals from Elizabeth Warren and even some from the recently converted to the cause of combatting inequality, Larry Summers. Many of these proposals are in response to the perceived continuing increase in inequality and the fact that Progressives believe that without significant government intervention the Dream will die.
All of this has the effect of forcing the all but anointed 2016 Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton to embrace significant parts of this progressive agenda. While this seems to be something of an anathema to the centrist Hillary, it is becoming apparent that this is what many in the party want. But can they convince the nation that the American Dream needs to be provided with the assistance of government?
The American Dream has been part of our nations folklore for almost a century. While the story of Ragged Dick is almost 150 years old, the mention of the American Dream dates to 1931 and is attributed to James Truslow Adams., Adams envisioned not “a dream of motor cars and high wages merely,” but rather “a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
Amazingly, on overwhelming majority of Americans still believe in the American Dream. Perhaps this is the reason why Americans tolerate such a high degree of inequality and have traditionally disliked government intervention in the engine of capitalism. Americans believe that very soon they or their descendants are going to be rich. As recently as 2009, the Pew Charitable Trust found that 39 percent of Americans thought that it was common for someone to be born poor and become rich. In fact 31 percent of Americans believed that they were going to become rich in their lifetimes.
Now the truth is that the American Dream, at least from a socio economic perspective has always been something of a myth. According to Timothy Noah in the Great Divergence, the United States (along with the United Kingdom) are the two developed nations in which income heritability is highest and intergenerational mobility is lowest. In simple terms it means that birth is the greatest determinant of an individuals career and income. Across all of the “Old World, less competitive” nations in Europe, mobility is higher and in places such as the “socialist” Nordic countries socio-economic mobility is orders of magnitude greater. Does anyone other than me see a link between this and income distribution?
So how will this work. While Republicans like to state that President Obama used government largess to win votes, there is little evidence that he actually did so. In fact, the last president to campaign on reducing inequality and actually win the office was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Lets think about 1964. The American economy was strong, the American people strongly believed that government was a force for good, the top marginal rate on personal income had just been reduced from 91% to 70% (that is not a Typo!), and the incumbent LBJ presided over the most overwhelmingly Democratic congress of modern times.
I think that the road to convincing Americans that government intervention, not just to grow the economy but also to grow economic opportunity for the largest number of Americans will be difficult. This will likely entail convincing those in the middle income and middle of the road politically that inequality is not only unfair, but bad economically for everyone. It will take a candidate whose credentials are not “Harvard Liberal” but one who is viewed as centrist. It also will take a candidate with incredibly thick skin that will be able to withstand the assault of the vested interests.
It will also take a bit of luck I suspect. The best hope for electing a Progressive minded president, Hillary isn’t a Progressive but can be pushed that way by her party, is to have the Republicans to nominate a candidate who stands in clear contrast to these ideals. Ted Cruz would be a dream but even his party knows he’s unelectable. Lets just hope that Jeb doesn’t survive the primaries.
The challenge to make the pro-government case is a daunting one. If were a betting man I’d be betting “Don’t Pass”. Fortunately, as I go to sleep tonight, I am heartened that some of us are discussing the rapidly fading American Dream. Of course Jodi Ernst is discussing Hardees…………….