As a rule, the political discussion over economic inequalities follows a predictable trajectory. The left will note that the United States is living in a new Gilded Age, with wealth concentrated at the very top in ways unseen since the 1920s
. It's well past time, progressives argue, to expand economic opportunities and reduce the chasm between rich and poor.
In response, the right will argue that the conversation itself is a form of class warfare; it's offensive to even acknowledge the existence of class differences; and policymakers should keep government out of possible solutions, leaving the matter to the free market.
It came as something of a surprise, then, when House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) tried to flip the script
while talking last week to the Texas Tribune
"We do have an issue of income inequality in America. The president's policies are making that problem worse… The top third of America are doing pretty good. The bottom two-thirds are really being squeezed. And I really do believe the president's policies are driving this in the wrong direction."
This comes up once in a great while, and it's always a bit of a surprise to hear conservative Republicans concede the point so readily. I was struck last October when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told
Iowa Republicans, "The rich are doing just great. You know the top 1 percent -- the evil millionaires and billionaires the president likes to talk about all the time -- they have a higher share of our income at any time since 1928."
OK, but isn't this exactly the kind of class-based observation that the right finds outrageous when President Obama makes it?
Or more to the point, once prominent Republican leaders, including the Speaker of the House himself, concede that "income inequality in America" is a legitimate issue that the government can address, doesn't that fundamentally change the nature of the political debate?
If Boehner's Republican colleagues come around to his beliefs, that would represent major shift in the party's policy agenda. And once Democrats and Republicans agree that rising income inequality is a problem, then they can debate what to do about it. In Texas, Boehner argued against raising the minimum wage, but was short on specific policy prescriptions for closing the gap between the rich and poor. So I visited the House GOP website for more information. There wasn't much.... When Republicans believed income inequality wasn't a problem, it made sense that they didn't have a plan to fix it. But with a Republican leader like Boehner begrudgingly admitting that it is a problem, the GOP's next challenge -- one that Democrats face as well -- is to develop solutions for it.
Boehner at least claims to believe President Obama's policies are making income inequality "worse." That's a pretty silly assertion with no basis in fact, but let's put that aside for a moment.
Instead, let's consider the Republican leader's concerns at face value. If the Speaker believes it's a "problem" that only folks at the top are doing well, then it stands to reason he should support policies intended to address this "problem." In practice, that apparently means endorsing an agenda that cuts off unemployment benefits, slashes food stamps, cuts funding for public services, eliminates health care benefits, and rejects minimum-wage increases.
Indeed, Boehner is a big fan of Paul Ryan's budget plan, which seems to be designed to make the income gap much worse, on purpose, by redistributing wealth from the bottom up.
To be sure, the causes of our contemporary Gilded Age and the roots of such widespread inequalities are complex, but if Boehner actually believes his own rhetoric, and sees "income inequality in America" as a "problem," it seems that he has a responsibility to (a) craft an agenda that at least tries to make things better; and (b) stop endorsing an agenda that would make things worse.
Let's make this plain: Mr. Speaker, where's your plan to address income inequality?