Pride goeth before a fall. Capitalism’s great triumph over socialism has been followed by a series of humbling setbacks since. Capitalism is not necessarily self-regulating, as we learned during the financial crisis. Capitalism does not necessarily lead to democracy abroad. Capitalism does not automatically produce sufficient social mobility.
Both Democrats and Republicans are adapting to these realities. Both are moving away from the orthodoxies that dominated the parties in the 1990s. We now have before us two documents that give us a sense of how each party is shifting.
On the Republican side, Marco Rubio, who has become the most intellectually creative of the presidential contenders, has given us a book, “American Dreams.” He moves beyond the Reagan-era emphasis on top marginal tax rates. He moves beyond the Mitt Romney distinction between makers and takers. Drawing on work by Yuval Levin, Peter Wehner and the YG Network, he gives us the clearest picture of how Republicans might use government to enhance middle-class prospects.
On the Democratic side, Lawrence Summers and British politician Ed Balls have given us the “Report of the Commission on Inclusive Prosperity.” This report smashes the New Democratic approach that defined Bill Clinton’s (and an earlier Larry Summers’) economic approach. It shows how boldly the Democrats have moved leftward and can be profitably read as a blueprint for a Hillary Clinton presidency.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
The Rubio and Summers documents have some overlap. They have a similar sense of the core of the problem: The forces unleashed by globalization and technological change have hit middle-class earnings. Both plans would increase the earned-income tax credit or create similar subsidies. Both would take bold measures to make college affordable, although the Rubio plan is private sector and the Summers plan is public.
In other ways the two visions are different. The Summers document uses the language of social fairness; the Rubio document uses the language of individual virtue. The Summers document puts a bit more emphasis on the demand side of the economy – pumping up middle-class spending – while the Rubio document puts more emphasis on the supply side - incentives to increase investment.
Summers believes that middle-class wages have been hurt because of changes in the way corporations work; Rubio doesn’t. The progressive document implies that finance and corporate boards have rigged the game against the middle class, while Rubio argues that corporate lobbyists have used government to rig the game against small companies. While Summers would make parts of college free, Rubio has a more aggressive plan to reform higher education itself, using online learning.
The contrasts on family policy are fascinating. For a progressive document, the Summers report is clear that two-parent families are important for social mobility. But the proposals would push families toward the sorts of day care arrangements progressives like, encouraging women to stay in the workforce. Rubio is more comfortable talking about family structure. His increased child tax credit would give parents greater leeway in how they want to make choices about child care and work.
The biggest philosophical difference between Rubio and Summers is this: Rubio sees government as a bridge helping people to get into the marketplace, while the Summers document argues that the marketplace is structurally flawed throughout and that government has to be a partner all the way along.
Rubio wants to transition to an immigration policy built around drawing high-level skills. He argues that employers should be allowed to immediately deduct every dollar they invest back in their business. He would simplify the tax code into two income tax rates: 15 percent and 35 percent. These proposals reshape the economic landscape but don’t get inside business decisions.
The Summers proposals get into the very gears of corporate governance and reshape workplaces on an intimate level. Summers would regulate executive compensation and use government power to encourage long-term investing. He would encourage employee ownership of companies and create mandatory works councils to bring employees into the decision-making process. He would have government ensure that employees have access to paid vacation, sick leave and generous family leave.
The questions for Rubio are: Is his approach sufficient? Will giving people access to contemporary capitalism lead to social mobility or is modern capitalism structurally flawed? The questions for Summers are: Have we forgotten the lessons of the last quarter-century? Do we think government is smart enough to intrude into millions of business decisions? Do we worry that in making hiring more expensive we will get less of it and wind up with European-style sclerosis and unemployment levels?
This big hairy problem – insufficient social mobility – has landed in our lap. We don’t know what to do. But we are getting some alternatives.