Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A Mobility Agenda

economy, mobility, poverty, opportunity


By Michael J. Gerson

April 25, 2014

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast for the Center for Public Justice on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

Economic debates are always complex, and the range of economic opinion is so wide that it yields support for nearly any policy prescription.  President Harry Truman once famously asked for a “one-handed economist” because all his economic advisors were prone to say “on the other hand.” 

But there is a rough consensus when it comes to defining America’s economic challenge.  Job creation is slow and wages have been stagnant for some time.  But the stock market and housing markets have recovered and advanced.  This has produced two very different outlooks on the economy.  Wall Street is generally doing well and corporate profits are high.  But many working and middle class Americans, with good reason, think the economy remains in a slump.   A recent poll found that 57 percent of Americans still believe we are in a recession – even though the recession officially ended in June of 2009. 

It is often unwise to take any given economic moment and extrapolate it into the future.  But along our current economic trends, there are some serious dangers.  As the economic returns of capital and investment increase, and the economic returns of work stagnate, America will risk becoming increasingly divided.  Wealth will have more relative rewards; labor less.  America’s economic classes could pull away from each other. 

Here the consensus ends.  Economists respond to this reality according to their preexisting ideology.   Some observe the accumulation of wealth and propose confiscatory taxation.  Others look at economic stagnation and see a need for greater government stimulus spending.  Others focus on the obstacles to business expansion and hiring and propose deregulation and lower business taxes.  

As an economic conservative, I have my own views on these matters.  But I think our economic debate would be improved by a less ideological approach.  Instead of an abstract argument between the advocates of equality and advocates of liberty, America would benefit from focusing on practical measures that help individuals achieve economic mobility. 

This approach – a mobility agenda – encourages a different emphasis.  It begins with individual knowledge and skills.  Effective education is the only way that people can share in the benefits of an increasingly competitive, increasingly globalized, increasingly technological economy.  If we fail in this area, success becomes difficult in any other. 

America needs to find creative ways to encourage savings and wealth creation among the poor and middle class – so they can share more broadly in the benefits of capital. 

We will need to increase the rewards of work – perhaps by expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit – and engage the long-term unemployed.

And private and religious institutions will need to find ways to encourage the strength of families in troubled communities – which is strongly correlated with economic health.   

Rather than another round of ideological debate, America needs a virtuous competition of practical ideas – from left and right – to prepare Americans for success in a difficult economy.  And the more specific those proposals, the better.   

- Michael J. Gerson is a Visiting Fellow with the Center for Public Justice and a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post. He is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”