December 19, 2014
Oren M. Levin-Waldman
Political scientist Harold Laswell famously defined politics as "who gets what when and how." This definition was intended to capture the connection between politics and power. Who gets what says something about who has power. When one gets what one wants says something about how important that individual or group is, and just how much power that person or group has.
How the power is obtained says something about the individual’s or group’s strength. But this observation isn’t just about the power, but the allocation of resources in an environment where resources are otherwise scarce. In today’s economy, it can refer to the economic pie.
In a political system where scarce resources are to be distributed, various groups will compete to determine who gets what, how much they get, and under what circumstances they get it. This usually means that if one group derives benefits, others bear costs. Laswell’s formulation certainly tells us much about the nature of American politics. And yet, we learn more when qualified by later political scientist Theodore Lowi’s identification of three types of activities characteristic of American politics: regulation, distribution, and redistribution.
Regulation involves either restricting the activities or rights of one group for the benefit, or protection, of another. Redistribution involves taking from one group amd giving to another. In both cases, those who bear the costs can easily be identified, as can those who derive the benefits. Distribution, however, involves the political system providing benefits to whatever group makes a request. In other words, everybody gets something and everybody bears the costs.
When we look at the minimum wage and other policies that might benefit the middle class through this prism, we can actually learn a lot about the nature of American politics and who has power, and it is by no means pretty. The minimum wage has often been presented as a form of redistribution where the profits of producers are reduced for the benefit of workers. That it might have a general welfare effect which would put it in the category of distribution, is often obscured by the unfortunate politicization of middle class issues. That the middle class seemingly continues to get the shaft only underscores the danger of rising income inequality and its corrosive effects on democratic society.
The real tragedy, however, is that policies that clearly benefit the middle class have been politicized. Those opposed to increases in the minimum wage have managed to turn it into a liberal feel good measure. Those supporting it have failed to make a coherent argument for it. Rather than arguing the efficiency wage that will have broader middle class welfare benefits, they simply dismiss opponents as backwards conservatives lacking in compassion. After all, to certain progressive minds certain truths are self evident.
One only wonders if amidst the political name calling whether anybody really cares about the middle class. Now that the official unemployment rate had declined, we complacently believe the economy is improving. Never mind that millions simply dropped out of the labor market or that with the recovery we have had increased productivity without the gains being spread around to workers through higher wages.
Conservatives accuse liberals of engaging in class warfare, but the real class warfare is the continued assault on the middle class. Without institutions that can speak in the name of the middle class and the least fortunate, the extreme wealthy will continue to get most of the economic pie while the rest of us get less and less. It will no longer be a question of who gets what, but how much one can get at the expense of others. Middle class policies no longer have a constituency that can even get something as part of the larger grab bag of distributional politics.
This is clearly one of the consequences of rising income inequality: politicians are more responsive to the most affluent and the wealthiest constituencies. A prime example is the minimum wage where opponents of the minimum wage have worked tirelessly and effectively to prevent it from being increased to prior levels or to be pegged to inflation. Historically, minimum wage increases and expansive coverage generated a fair amount of bipartisan support. But the political universe has increasingly become polarized. As polarization rose in the 1970s, bipartisanship disappeared. As a consequence of increasing Republican opposition in a period of polarization, there has been a dramatic decline in the real value of the minimum wage. Moreover, as polarization increased through the last quarter of the twentieth century, the direction of public policy overall became less favorable to the middle class.
At the same time, the news media has aided and abetted this process by focusing on the latest scandal rather than covering the real victims of these otherwise diversionary politics. It is time to stop the politics of diversion and address the needs of the middle class. We send politicians to Washington to serve us; not to engage in power politics. What Lasswell's classic observation underscores is that the middle class gets nothing, as evidenced by the decline in wages. We know that in the last few years that median household income actually declined by $3,000 to $4,000. And yet, because institutions that prop up wages like unions and minimum wages are often couched as partisan issues, neither side is willing to listen to the other when an argument can be made that advances the middle class.
In a polarized universe which has become more polarized due to growing income inequality, the only remedy, aside from serious campaign reform, is to, as political scientist Martin Gilens suggests, advance policy that can be brought into lines with the preferences of rich and poor alike. This is known as "targeting within universalism." It rest on the assumption that universal policies have broader appeal because they don’t seek to redistribute downward, rather they benefit the middle class, and therefore are bound to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters.
The idea of targeting within universalism is precisely why a minimum wage sold on the basis of its benefits to the middle class might be a more effective way of reducing income inequality.To the extent that maintenance of the middle class drives the economy because of a greater propensity to consume than those at the very top, this in the end becomes a matter of economic efficiency. Still, the issue has to be de-politicized. The middle class needs higher wages. It doesn’t need to be used as a prop in political campaign commercials, to only be ignored following the election. It certainly doesn’t need class warfare fought in its name. Class warfare is merely a smoke screen for policies that in the end may only be more detrimental. Rather it needs substantive policy beneficial to the middle class because ultimate, if universal, we all benefit.