n a column from December of 2015, the Wall Street Journal’s Mary O’Grady unveiled an inconvenient fact that poverty warriors on the American left and right would perhaps prefer remain hidden: from 1980 to 2000, when the U.S. economy boomed, the number of Mexican arrivals into the U.S. grew from 2.2 million in 1980 to 9.4 million in 2000. The previous number is a clear market signal that the U.S. is where poverty has always been cured, as opposed to a condition that requires specific U.S. policy fixes.
O’Grady’s statistics came to mind while reading a recent New York Times column by Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He writes that a “highly progressive agenda [from Democratic scholars and politicians] has been coming together in recent months, one with the potential to unite both the Hillary and Bernie wings of the party, to go beyond both Clintonomics and Obamanomics.”The problem is that the agenda that’s got Bernstein so giddy has nothing to do with the very economic growth that is always the source of rising economic opportunity for the poor, middle and rich.
Up front, Bernstein expresses excitement about a $190 billion (annually) program that he describes as a “universal child allowance.” The allowance would amount to annual federal checks sent to low-income families of $3,000/child. It all sounds so compassionate on its face to those who think it kind for Congress to spend the money of others, but given a second look even the mildly sentient will understand that economic opportunity never springs from a forcible shift of money from one pocket to another. If it were, theft would be both legal and encouraged.
The very economic growth in the U.S. that has long proven a magnet for the world’s poorest springs not from wealth redistribution, but instead from precious capital being matched with entrepreneurs eager to transform ideas into reality. Just as the U.S. economy wouldn’t advance if Americans with odd-numbered addresses stealthily ‘lifted’ $3,000 each from those with even-numbered addresses, neither will it grow if the federal government is the one taking from some, only to give to others.
Economic progress always and everywhere springs from investment, yet Bernstein is arguing with a straight face that the U.S.’s poorest will be better off if the feds extract $190 billion of precious capital from the investment pool. As readers can probably imagine, he doesn’t stop there.
Interesting is that Bernstein’s next naïve suggestion involves “direct job creation policies, meaning either jobs created by the government or publicly subsidized private employment.” Ok, but all jobs are a function of private wealth creation as Bernstein unwittingly acknowledges given his call for resource extraction from the private sector in order to create them.
This begs the obvious question why economic opportunity would be enhanced if the entrepreneurial and business sectors had less in the way of funds to innovate with. But that’s exactly what Bernstein is seeking through his $190 billion “universal child allowance,” not to mention his call for more “jobs created by the government.”Stating what’s obvious even to Bernstein, government can’t create any work absent private sector wealth, so why not leave precious resources in the hands of the true wealth creators? Precisely because they’re wealth focused, funds kept in their control will be invested in ways that foster much greater opportunity than can politicians consuming wealth created by others.
Still, Bernstein plainly can’t see just how contradictory his proposals are; proposals that explicitly acknowledge where all opportunity emerges from. Instead, he calls for more government programs. Specifically, he’s proposing a $1 trillion expansion of the “earned-income tax credit” meant to pay Americans to go to work.
As he suggests, the $1 trillion of funds extracted from the productive parts of the economy would lead to family of four tax credits of $6,000 in place of the “current benefit of about $2,000.” Ok, but what goes unexplained here is why we need to pay those residing in the U.S. to work in the first place.
What gives life to the above question is the previously mentioned influx of Mexican strivers into the U.S. during the U.S. boom of the 80s and 90s. What the latter indicated clearly is that economic growth itself is the greatest enemy poverty has ever known. It also indicated that work is available to those who seek it, and even better, the work available is quite a bit more remunerative than one could find anywhere else in the world.
Rest assured that the U.S. hasn’t historically experienced beautiful floods of immigration because opportunity stateside was limited. People come here because the U.S. is once again the country in which the impoverished can gradually erase their poverty thanks to abundant work opportunities. If Mexicans who frequently don’t speak English can improve their economic situations in the U.S., why on earth would the political class pay natives who do speak the language to pursue the very work that is the envy of much of the rest of the world?Put rather simply, those who require payment above and beyond their wage to get up and go in the morning have problems that have nothing to do with a lack of work, and everything to do with a lack of initiative. Importantly, handouts from Washington logically won’t fix what is a problem of limp ambition. At best, they’ll exacerbate what Bernstein claims to want to fix.
Inequality Hurts No One
Most comical is Bernstein’s assertion that the tax credits will allegedly mitigate “the damage done to low- and moderate-wage earners by the forces of inequality that have steered growth away from them” in modern times. What could he possibly mean? The U.S. has long been very unequal economically, yet the world’s poorest have consistently risked their lives to get here precisely because wealth gaps most correlate with opportunity.
Translated, investment abundantly flows to societies where individuals are free to pursue what most elevates their talents (yes, pursuit of what makes them unequal), and with investment comes work options for everyone. Doubters need only travel to Seattle and Silicon Valley, where the world’s five most valuable companies are headquartered, to see up close why the latter is true.
Similarly glossed over by this confused economist is that rising inequality is the surest sign of a shrinking lifestyle inequality between the rich and poor. We work in order to get, and thanks to rich entrepreneurs more and more Americans have instant access at incessantly falling prices to the computers, mobile phones, televisions, clothing and food that were once solely the preserve of the rich.Just once it would be nice if Bernstein and the other class warriors he runs with would explain how individual achievement that leads to wealth harms those who aren’t rich. What he would find were he to replace emotion with rationality is that in capitalist societies, people generally get rich by virtue of producing abundance for everyone. In short, we need more inequality, not less, if the goal is to improve the living standards of those who presently earn less.
Remarkably, Bernstein describes the ideas presented as “bold” and “progressive,” but in truth, they’re the same lame-brained policies of redistribution that the left have been promoting for decades. And as they’re anti-capital formation by Bernstein’s very own admission, they’re also inimical to the very prosperity that has long made the U.S. the country where poverty is cured. To be clear, if this is the best the Democrats have, they’ll long remain in the minority.
John Tamny is a Forbes contributor, editor of RealClearMarkets, a senior fellow in economics at Reason, and a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research & Trading. He’s the author of the 2016 book Who Needs the Fed? (Encounter), along with Popular Economics (Regnery Publishing, 2015).