Unequal Democracy

I’m three pages into the first chapter of Larry Bartels’ forthcoming Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age and I have questions:

My examination of the partisan politics of economic in equality, in chapter 2, reveals that Democratic and Republican presidents over the past half-century have presided over dramatically different patterns of income growth. On average, the real incomes of middle- class families have grown twice as fast under Democrats as they have under Republicans, while the real incomes of working poor families have grown six times as fast under Democrats as they have under Republicans. These substantial partisan differences persist even after allowing for differences in economic circumstances and historical trends beyond the control of individual presidents. They suggest that escalating inequality is not simply an inevitable economic trend— and that a great deal of economic inequality in the contemporary United States is specifically attributable to the policies and priorities of Republican presidents.

Fascinating if true! But, congress writes the laws, not the president. So why not look at the party tilt of congresses rather than presidents? Or the alignments between the party controlling congress and the part in the White House. What happens under divided government, I wonder.

This is not to say that presidents don’t have a lot of policymaking power, especially given the massive growth in the size and power of the bureaucracies under executive control. The cabinet agencies’ considerable discretion in creating and enforcing regulations and their ability to selectively apply and enforce legislated mandates should be troubling — in itself and independent of issues of partisan slant — to those, like Bartels, who start with Dahl’s “Who governs?” question.

Because growth effects, for good or ill, follow policy changes with a pretty long lag (in political time at least), I guess this effect is supposed to be largely a function of redistributive policy that can take effect within a president’s term?

I’m looking forward to reading pages 4 – n. The book looks to me like Krugman for serious people. I find that I’m completely convinced by the main premise of the Bartels/Krugman line, which is that a great deal of the increase in inequality has been an effect of Republican approaches to taxation and redistribution. I’m simply not convinced that this is pernicious. I do think economic stratification is pernicious, but that has more to do with the Democratic Party standing in the way of fundamental structural reform in education as it has to do with Republican tax cuts for rich people, doesn’t it? I have an inkling that Bartels thinks voters want more redistribution and less inequality, but aren’t getting it. I think this is half right. Many people increasingly do want less inequality, but they want that to happen primarily through increased access to decent educational opportunities. (I have seen data to this effect.) To really hit hard at nominal inequality through redistribution, we’ll need to raise taxes on the middle class a lot. But I don’t think there is unmet political demand for huge middle-class tax increases. We’ll see. Page 4, here I come!

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