Issue #20, Spring 2011

Growth and the Middle Class

To read the other essays in the “First Principles: Arguing the Economy” symposium, click here.

Progressives need to seize this opportunity by putting forward their own theory: that a strong middle class is the key to economic growth. Leaders in academia, government, and policy-making circles need to take up this charge. Political standard-bearers have to synthesize the message of middle-class-led growth and popularize it, just as Roosevelt did with Keynesian economics and Reagan did with trickle-down. For progressives to win arguments about the economy, Americans need to understand that a strong middle class leads to economic growth, and not the other way around.


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Issue #20, Spring 2011
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The clearest argument against trickle-down economic theories would seem to be our recent experience with bank bail-outs.

On the theory that the bloated, over-stuffed banks were absolutely vital to our economy and had to be bailed out and saved despite their irresponsible gambling led us to handing a $trillion over to them.

Not to worry! Surely this money would trickle down to the rest of us. So did it trickle down? So did it trickle down?

Not at all! It got distributed to bank executives. Some got invested overseas and some went into commodity speculation, driving up our prices for gasoline and food.

Why did it not get invested here? Because the USA is not where the big growth potential is and it is not where the risks are low.

The US government has dis-invested its infrastructure for the last thirty years and it has encouraged its businesses to leave. Why would anyone invest in this country if its own government will not.

May 11, 2011, 9:38 AM
Darrell Watson:

Though the article makes a convincing argument for a vibrant middle class, it does not state specific economic policies to achieve said goal. The person, whether democrat or republican who can articulate such an economic policy will win in a landslide.

Jan 31, 2012, 7:32 PM
Dave Higgins:

If progressives want to successfully connect with voters, they need to get beyond academic analyses and economic policies. They need instead to come up with a foundational explanation of how the world works - and therefore how we should address the problems we face.

In this particular case, explaining why the well-being of the middle class is important needs to be rooted in more than a bunch of statistics. It needs to be rooted in a clear understanding of how the world works.

We are living in confusing and uncertain times. For most people, this is very troubling. The appeal of conservatives and their arguments is their simplicity: "Things are messed up because of liberals & foreigners who are trying to change us. All we need to do is go back to the way things were."

Progressives need to come up with a simple framework for their ideas that provides an alternative understanding of the way things are, which can provide a foundation for their ideas as well as a rationale for voters to support them.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about:

Feb 23, 2012, 4:50 PM

Well-done, but with such an emphasis on the need for a prosperous middle class, you surely should define that term. Do you mean a middle class as distinguished from the working class? A middle class that excludes the working poor? Redistribution of income from the wealthy to the rest of us is one of the key pro-growth ideas, and I hope in your thinking 'rest of us' = 'middle class'.

Jan 13, 2013, 2:18 AM
George DeMarse:

For a discussion of the "goals" of progressives, see Drew Westin and "The Political Brain," and George Lakoff and "The Political Mind." Both of these books provide a "master narrative" of progressive policies.
Basically they include the general principles of: the merits of collective decision making to solve problems rather than individual action, a progressive taxation system to fund government programs, the need to help the weakest members of society, appeal to science in social policy, the teaching of civic pride, etc.

The Sage of Wake Forest

Jan 13, 2013, 1:20 PM

Thanks for the interesting post. The one thing lacking is the discussion on how the middle-class grew in America in the first place. If you can make a strong argument for how past progressive policies enabled the development of a large middle class in America, you'd be set. But, until then, you are at a loss for an argument that it was a free-market that allowed for the rise of the middle class, and progressive policies only serve to keep people dependent on the government, rather than learning how to save, invest and grow on their own merits.

Jan 14, 2013, 5:30 PM
George DeMarse:

Well that would be easy. Progressive policies "made the middle class."

In the gilded age, wealth was almost exclusively reserved for the top 2 or 3 percent of the population--industrialists, inherited wealth, etc. There was barely a "middle class" to speak of--mostly poor and unlanded gentry.

With the advent of the "progressive era," the the progressive income tax and other policies that redistributed some wealth and created some economic security enabled a middle class to be born and sustain itself.

The middle class became more stable and grew with the advent of unionization later on when more wealth was "negotiated" toward the middle and away from the top. This enable a large middle class to "consume more" a grow the economy.

That would be the answer to your question on "how" progressive policies created a middle class. And the reason we need more of these policies today to sustain it.

Jan 21, 2013, 11:21 AM

Trickle down has two paths. One is based on progressive principles where government taxes and trickles down tax dollars through favoritism, K-Street pressure, ideology, crony capitalism, campaign contributions and entitlements. The other is free market capitalism where free individuals free from government manipulation based progressive principles build wealth through their innovation, ability to tolerate risk, education and drive by a combination of greed and deed. These individuals create wealth through a job rather than government handout. They compete on quality and cost until government pollutes their industy with crony capitalism where failure is rewarded and excellence dies. Those with a moral compass will be more motivated by deed but still victims of progressive principles. Those driven by power and materialism will favor greed and collaborate with progressives in government for special treatment. The difference is progressivism has NEVER created a vibrant middleclass because its leaders see the masses as helpless victims and themselves as an more caring, educated aristocracy more capable of manipulating their weaknesses to the politically correct path. Unionized public education is a monument to progressivism where progressive disciples described as teachers have devolved K-12 education to 25th in the World from number one in 1960. It is trickle-down progressivism that is driving the US economy, education and culture today, not free market trickle-down. You have misdiagnosed the problem because it is the solution you are advocating.

Feb 14, 2013, 8:25 AM

progressive (liberal) policies always fail, and have contributed zero to the economic growth of this country. We are living through the proof of this right now.

Aug 2, 2014, 10:06 AM

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