What do Democrats need to do about the politics of the economy?

I’m not exactly sure, and either is Josh Marshall, but this piece is really a tour-de-force in thinking about important economic issues of inequality, wages, economic growth and how they all relate to our contemporary politics.  You really should just read all of it, but since most of you won’t…

Democrats have toyed (and I use that term advisedly) with the issue of rising inequality for the last two elections. But let me suggest that as a political matter inequality is a loser. What is driving the politics of the country to a mammoth degree is that the vast majority of people in the country no longer have a rising standard of living. And Democrats don’t have a policy prescription to make that change….

Fundamentally, most people don’t care particularly how astronomically wealthy people are living their lives. It is a distant reality on many levels. They care a great deal about their own economic circumstances. And if you are not doing any better than you were 5 years ago or a decade ago or – at least in the sense of the hypothetical median wage earner – 40 years ago, that’s going to really have your attention and shape a great deal of your worldview and political outlook.

So, let me sign up with those who are saying that it was a mistake not to run more clearly on the President’s (and the Democrats’) economic record. Unemployment is back down to something like normal levels (under 6%); the deficit has fallen consistently and is now back to pre-crash levels judged as a percentage of GDP (which is the only meaningful way to judge it); the stock market has done incredibly well. Yes, totally.

But here’s the thing: As long as most voters are still just treading water in their own economic lives, Republicans can say, “Oh yeah, they say the economy’s doing great with all their fancy numbers. But that’s not what I see!” To an extent that will just be another Republican paean to innumeracy. But it will resonate because rising employment is not leading to rising wages. And that’s the core economic experience of wage earners who make up the overwhelming number of people in the country. In a critical sense, it is true…

But what are the policies that would change this corrosive trend? And how do you run on them as a party if you don’t know what they are? Minimum wage increases help those at the very bottom of the income scale and they have a lifting effect up the wage scale as the floor gets pushed up. But it is at best a small part of the puzzle. Clamping down on tax dodges by the extremely wealthy claws back some resources for the treasury and sends an important message, as might some restrictions on ridiculously high CEO pay. But again, these are important changes at the margins that do not fundamentally change the equation. Economic populism or another comparable politics with a different tonality won’t get you very far if you can get beyond beating up on the winners to providing concrete improvements to those losing out in today’s economy.

Again, a stark reality: Democrats don’t have a set of policies to turn around this trend. Republicans don’t either, of course. But they don’t need to. Not in the same way. As a party they are basically indifferent to middle class wages. And their policies stand to make the situation even worse…

So find the policies, if there are any, build a political coalition around them. And then, don’t forget: the spiraling rates of wealth concentration have created a political economy in which organized wealth is extremely well positioned to beat back any challenges to its gains.

Believe it or not, I’m not a pessimist on all this stuff. But you cannot make middle class wage growth and wealth inequality the center of your politics unless you have a set of policies which credibly claims some real shot at addressing the problem. At least not for long. [emphasis mine]

Yep, there’s the rub indeed and it also echoes a point Drum has often made.  Whatever these policies are, that really need to be the focus of a Democratic politics that wins back a lot of voters.  Democrats have to strongly advocate for policies which have a clear and direct benefit to middle-class wage earners and make it quite clear that’s what they are doing.

How is education policy like 1960’s football players?

So, really busy day as Dana Goldstein, author of The Teacher Wars is here today.  Last night I was reading the latest James Surowiecki column all about how we have figured out how to unleash human athletic performance and seen great improvement.  Alas, when it comes to education, we are like 1960’s football players who had regular jobs in the offseason and didn’t even lift weights.  So, just read it.

The ethos that underlies all these performance revolutions is captured by the Japanese term kaizen, or continuous improvement. In a kaizenworld, skill is not a static, fixed quality but the subject of ceaseless labor. This idea is more applicable to some fields of endeavor than to others—it’s easier to talk about improved performance in sports or manufacturing, where people’s performance is quantifiable, than in writing or the fine arts—but the notion of continuous improvement has wide relevance, leading to dramatic advances in fields as disparate as airline safety and small-unit performance in the military. Which raises a question: what are the fields that could have become significantly better over the past forty years and haven’t?

There are obvious examples. Customer service seems worse than it once was. Most companies underinvest in it, because they see it purely as a cost center, rather than a source of potential profits, and so workers are undertrained. Customer-service centers have often been set up to maximize the very things—speed and volume—that make for a poor customer experience. Continuous improvement is of no use if you’re not improving the right things. Medicine, too, has not seen the leap in performance one might have expected. Technology has given doctors many more tools, and has materially improved patients’ lives. But the number of serious medical errors has remained stubbornly high, as has the amount of wasted spending in the system. Reformers are now calling for a “focus on performance” in medical schools, precisely because it hasn’t been a focus in the past.

In one area above all, the failure to improve is especially egregious: education. Schools are, on the whole, little better than they were three decades ago; test scores have barely budged since the famous “A Nation at Risk” report came out, in the early nineteen-eighties. This isn’t for lack of trying, exactly. We now spend far more per pupil than we once did. We’ve shrunk class sizes, implemented national standards, and amped up testing. We’ve increased competition by allowing charter schools. And some schools have made it a little easier to remove ineffective teachers. None of these changes have made much of a difference.

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