OP-ED | Provide Access to Economic Change
Change is really hard.
Neither political party will embrace change. It makes sense. There is more money in protecting power. This is an unfortunate fact of life: state, local and federal government spending represents $7 trillion dollars. That is something you protect.
Instinctively, we know change is important. Our sitting President leveraged the word — perhaps more than the concept — and won his first election. He may have won the second election because we are afraid of change.
Folks that study economic policy acknowledge we need big change to reverse trends that undermine the strength of our economy. As an observation, most folks would agree. The means to this end, however, is a political landmine.
Adjusting funding levels for exisitng programs does not constitute change. That would imply we have prioritized the distribution of our limited public funds correctly. The nature of our spending problem is centered on how we invest, not how much.
We need to invest in different stuff, but thinking different is really hard. It is hard to change. When you propose change to a system, the system pushes back. I have learned that the language we use is central to creating consensus.
One example should help prove my point.
Nationally, our economy is constricting for many. Our national median income is down. In Connecticut, the dynamic is more pronounced. We actually lost private sector jobs for the 20 years of national prosperity before the recession. In Connecticut, the money from Wall Street enabled us to divert our attention. OK, now need is expanding and the engine to address that need is sputtering and failing. Bad news. We should change.
Whoa. Hold on. One tribe talks about “income inequality” and the other cries “socialism” and we are off to the races. The hyper partisan among us scream and policy suffers. Both red and blue are convinced the status quo is unacceptable, but their intransigence ensures nothing will change. There is plenty of “quasi data” to go around: look at the stock market, unemployment is down, we have a surplus but — on the other hand — poverty is increasing, our unemployment data excludes the designated “non-people” and we have the highest per capita debt in the nation. Your head starts to hurt.
This is not your parents’ economy. Recent job gains have been concentrated in lower-wage occupations such as retail sales, food preparation, manual labor, home health care, and customer service. They have not come close to compensating for the loss of jobs in moderate income professions such as manufacturing and skilled construction. Additionally, part time work is increasingly the norm and our long-term unemployed — who are human beings with families — should be counted. So should folks in prison.
“Income inequality” is a core economic issue that has been politicized, similar to climate change. The issue is not only relevant to “liberals.” Many business leaders are beginning to care deeply. Why? A vibrant consumer market makes us a stronger nation. It means Medicaid expense will decrease and your next flat screen TV will be cheaper. A win-win.
The conversation about income inequality is not a personal assault. It does not diminish the glory of your success, whether you trekked 20 miles in the snow to go to school in the morning, or if you went to college at night while holding down 4 jobs. Less people with access to the economic means to be self-sufficient means our economy will begin to shut down. Even the wealthiest people can only buy so many pairs of jeans and happy meals. Retailers for the low- to moderate-income market are beginning to experience pain.
Meaningful structural change is required. Yes, we have a spending problem. However, the problem is not in the amount of spending, but in the nature of our investments. Proposing that we simply “spend less” implies that the investments are appropriate in nature, but wrong in the amount. No. We need to change.
So what do we do? That is really hard to figure out. But if we don’t provide access to change through a more honest and less partisan dialogue, we are all protecting the status quo.
Brian O’Shaughnessy of New Haven is a principal in the firm Community Impact Strategies Ltd. The mission of CIS is to facilitate the investment of public and private capital for the purpose of creating measureable improvements in human productivity and living conditions.