Individual Age Economics
Yet, in this Jeffersonian moment, Americans are largely being offered two Hamiltonian approaches from their political leaders, with both progressives and conservatives promoting a top-down view of economic prosperity. Beyond the rejectionism of the Tea Party, mainstream conservatives still see economic policy solely through the prism of providing more capital to the privileged captains of industry who can then make the best choices on how those funds should be used. Most progressives, along with so-called “national greatness” conservatives, have their own Hamiltonian vision of our economic future—one of high-speed trains racing across the plains, deserts filling up with solar arrays and prairies sprouting wind turbines, government-sponsored research into new technologies and cures, cities tied together with networks of broadband and repaired bridges.
While the top-down tax cuts are of limited long-term economic value, the top-down infrastructure initiatives are crucial to our future but incomplete as an economic program. Moreover, they ring hollow to Americans who are less concerned with the rise of China than with their own personal ability to get ahead in today’s economy. While making America more globally competitive is vital, the gaping hole in our economic discussion is an agenda for making Americans more personally competitive.
Today, instead of Hamiltonian means to Jeffersonian ends, we need the reverse: Jeffersonian means to Hamiltonian ends—strengthening the hand of the individual and breaking up concentrated power in both government and corporate bureaucracies in order to unleash national prosperity and economic growth.
What would an Individual Age economic policy look like? It would start by refashioning the Department of Labor into a “Small Business Administration for individuals,” with help and training for workers in navigating their careers, assistance for entrepreneurs, lifelong learning loans, and wage insurance plans. Unemployment benefits should be modernized from a safety net into a trampoline so that they not only cushion the blow for millions of laid-off workers but help them find better jobs and create new ones. Health-care and retirement benefits should be made more personalized, portable, affordable, and universal, as envisioned by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden and others. Fundamental immigration reform should open the doors of America to the most highly skilled and hardest-working people of every country in the world. New initiatives should be taken to help Americans build assets from birth so that they can use them to start new businesses and create personal wealth. The Obama Administration’s smart Startup America public-private partnership should be taken to scale so that new businesses can be started with the kind of urgency and resources the federal government used to bail out failed dinosaur corporations. The public education system needs to be radically reformed and a college education made as universal as Industrial Age reformers made high school a century ago.
These ideas have been discussed previously in isolation, but as a whole this people-focused economic approach is not on Washington’s radar screen. If we are going to reclaim the promise of broad-based growth, it needs to be. An economy battered by recession will start to stir again in the coming months and years, but it is not enough to seek to restore the economy as it was before the flood. We need more than a return to the status quo of a lost decade and a generation of diminished expectations, when flipping houses and shorting stocks took the place of innovation and effort, two-income couples maxed out their credit cards and took out second mortgages just so their families could tread water, and the nation piled enormous deficits on top of already monster debts with nothing to show for it.
The task ahead in the Individual Age is to create a Horatio Alger economy, a drive to rebuild the possibility of upward mobility that is at the heart of the American experience. For today’s middle-class Americans, life is a game of “Chutes and Ladders” with more chutes than ladders. While individuals have been thrown back upon themselves, both progressives and conservatives have acted as if the economy still functions from the top down. If America is to recapture the economic growth that was Hamilton’s concern and the broad equality of opportunity that was Jefferson’s dream, our mission must be to forge a new economics for the Individual Age that rethinks our economy from the bottom up.
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