Growing our economy has become a key focal point in political discussions in recent years, and has important public policy implications moving forward. In the name of “economic growth” and the pursuit of “pro-growth” policies, we have implemented a series of austerity measures that have been devastating to the public at large, while protecting and further enriching the wealthy class in America.
The term “economic growth” is a frame designed to convince us that we all benefit when our economy grows, and that the best way to do this is to give wealthy people more tax breaks, or “tax relief”, which is another frame. In other words, we are all expected to pay more in taxes, so the wealthy class can pay less! A recent study by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) does a great job at exposing both right wing frames.
The CRS study specifically analyzed 65 years worth of data between top tax rates and economic growth. Although the top tax rates wealthy people pay have never been lower during this time period, the study found no correlation between top tax rates and economic growth. Another fascinating discovery was that a correlation was found between reducing the top tax rates and increased concentrations of wealth for this privileged class. In other words, voting for “tax relief” in the past has led to a transfer of wealth over the past 65 years from millions of hard working Americans to a few affluent families. It’s clear from these findings that providing “tax relief” in the name of pursuing “economic growth” is actually harming our economy by unnecessarily privileging the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.
Another interesting element of the “economic growth” frame involves the belief that with hard work anyone can become successful and achieve the American dream. This is also known as social mobility, or equality of opportunity. Unfortunately, America is no longer the land of opportunity it once was, and many people are coming to the realization that the American dream is now a myth. Joseph Stiglitz, an award winning economist, wrote an article on this very issue recently called, “Equal Opportunity, Our National Myth”
where he discusses how the U.S. has less equality of opportunity than nearly every other industrial country. After pointing out that children of affluent families are inclined to experience better health care, education, and nutrition, Stiglitz noted, “in some cases it seems as if policy has actually been designed to reduce opportunity…”, particularly with respect to education.
This is what a focus on “pro-growth” policies has gotten us. A lopsided economy where a few affluent families are able to send their kids to the best schools, receive the best health care, and live in enriching and non polluted environments, while the rest of us deal with the aftermath of austerity measures aimed at cutting funding for our children’s schools, losing our health care, and not having equal access to enriching environments. The repetition of this frame by the modern day Republican Party, Fox news affiliates, and pundits on the right is used to gain public support for policies that prevent and outright reduce equality of opportunity for the majority of people, while convincing us to believe in the myth of the American dream. This is what “pro-growth” policies mean. They are intentionally designed to benefit the privileged at the expense of everyone else.
It appears as if some on the left have also started to adopt the economic growth frame. In an effort to combat the utter failures of trickle-down economics and correct the deficiencies it has brought about, they too have adopted similar language arguing in favor of “middle-out” economics. Unfortunately, being in favor of middle-out economics is still advocating for “economic growth”, and will continue to ensure we adopt more of the same “pro-growth” policies that are causing many of our social and economic problems. Instead, we need to embrace an “Economy for Everyone”.
In their book The Spirit Level, epidemiologists’ Wilkinson and Pickett, brilliantly illustrate how we are currently experiencing material success, but social failure in the U.S. This is largely a result of reaching the limits of what economic growth can provide to wealthy countries, as well as the undeniable contribution of inequality of income that exists within the U.S. In fact, according to the authors, “economic growth, for so long the great engine of progress, has in the rich countries, largely finished its work.” Today, we are witnessing an overall decrease in health, happiness, and wellbeing of millions of American families, among many other social ills as a result of one single factor; the difference in income levels between the have and have nots. Such a discrepancy between material success and social failure suggests that, “if we are to gain further improvements in the real quality of life, we need to shift attention from material standards and economic growth to ways of improving the psychological and social wellbeing of whole societies.”
In order to successfully increase the overall health, happiness and well being for all American families, we need to advocate for and spread the message of an “Economy for Everyone”. An economy that works for everyone takes all of our needs into consideration, and reduces the level of inequality across income groups, which is the single largest contributor to our current economic and social failures.
In addition, the PEW research center recently found that 90% of Americans want the government to do everything it can to ensure equality of opportunity. With equality of opportunity, we can overcome many of the hurdles that are artificially placed before us under the guise of “economic growth”, and once again ensure America’s standing in the world as the land of opportunity. Therefore, spreading the message of an “Economy for Everyone” should be a no-brainer, and this language will hopefully replace any future discussion of “middle-out” economics.
The challenge facing the adoption of this new language comes from policy makers and political pundits, who (perhaps unknowingly) are keeping the “economic growth” frame alive. Consequently, a focus on economic growth primarily benefits the affluent at the expense of everyone else, reduces equality of opportunity, and stands in the way to a achieving a happier and healthier society.