Hillary Clinton’s record is more moderate than the Democratic primary voter today. So it was always likely that she would move left as the primary season approached. It’s now becoming clearer how she might do it. She might make a shift from what you might call human capital progressivism to redistributionist progressivism.
For many years, Democratic efforts to reduce inequality and lift middle-class wages were based on the theory that the key is to improve the skills of workers. Expand early education. Make college cheaper. Invest in worker training. Above all, increase the productivity of workers so they can compete.
But a growing number of populist progressives have been arguing that inequality is not mainly about education levels. They argue that trying to lift wages by improving skills is an “evasion.” It’s “whistling past the graveyard.”
The real problem, some of them say, is concentrated political power. The oligarchs have rigged the game so that workers get squeezed. Others say the problem is stagnation. It’s not that workers don’t have skills; the private economy isn’t generating jobs. Or it’s about corporate power. Without stronger unions shareholders reap all the gains.
People in this camp point out that inflation-adjusted wages for college grads have been flat for the past 14 years. Education apparently hasn’t lifted wages. The implication? Don’t focus on education for the bottom 99 percent. Focus on spreading wealth from the top. Don’t put human capital first. Put redistribution first.
Over the past few months a stream of Democratic thinkers and politicians, including natural Clinton allies, have moved from the human capital emphasis to the redistributionist emphasis. (It’s a matter of emphasis, not strictly either/or.) For Clinton herself, the appeal is obvious. The redistributionist agenda allows her to hit Wall Street and CEOs — all the targets that have become progressive betes noires.
Unfortunately, this rising theory is wrong on substance and damaging in its effects.
It is true that wages for college grads have been flat this century, and that is troubling. But this is not true of people with post-college degrees, who are doing nicely. Moreover, as Lawrence Katz of Harvard points out, the argument that college doesn’t pay is partly a product of a short-time horizon. Since 2000, the real incomes of the top 1 percent have declined slightly. If you limited your view to just those years, you’d conclude that there is no inequality problem, which is clearly not true.
On an individual level, getting more skills is the single best thing you can do to improve your wages. The economic rewards to education are at historic highs. Americans with a four-year college degree make 98 percent more per hour than people without one. The median college-educated worker will make half-a-million dollars more than a high-school-educated worker over a career after accounting for college costs. Research by Raj Chetty, of Harvard, and others suggests that having a really good teacher for only one year raises a child’s cumulative lifetime income by $80,000.
“What I find destructive,” says David Autor, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “is the message that if you don’t get into the top 1 percent then you’re out of the game. That’s deeply, deeply incorrect.”
Autor’s own research shows that skills differences are four times more important than concentration of wealth in driving inequality. If we could magically confiscate and redistribute the above-average income gains that have gone to the top 1 percent since 1979, that would produce $7,000 more per household per year for the bottom 99 percent. But if we could close the gap so that high-school-educated people had the skills of college-educated people, that would increase household income by $28,000 per year.
Focusing on human capital is not whistling past the graveyard. Worker productivity is the main arena. No redistributionist measure will have the same long-term effect as good early-childhood education and better community colleges, or increasing the share of men capable of joining the labor force.
The redistributionists seem to believe that modern capitalism is fundamentally broken. That growth has permanently stagnated. That productivity should no longer be the focus because it doesn’t lead to shared prosperity.
But their view is biased by temporary evidence from the recession. Right now, jobs are being created, wages are showing signs of life. Those who get more skills earn more money. Today’s economy has challenges, but the traditional rules still apply. Increasing worker productivity is the key. Increasing incentives to risk and invest is essential. Shifting people into low-productivity government jobs is not the answer.
It’s clear why Clinton might want to talk redistribution. On substantive policy grounds, it would be destructive to do so. And, in the general election, voters respond to the uplifting and the unifying, not the combative and divisive.