Asked about the dramatic rise in income inequality, the public is seemingly of two minds.
A recent Bloomberg poll revealed the country to be split right down the middle. In the Bloomberg survey, 45 percent were in favor of new government polices to combat income inequality, while 46 percent thought the problem was best left to the free market.
Yet, the attitude toward income inequality isn’t simply a reflection of the now familiar partisan divide. It also reflects basic contradictions in public attitude on this and many other issues.
The Washington Post asked a slightly different question and, as a result, got a much different answer. It asked: “Do you think the federal government should or should not pursue policies that try to reduce the gap between wealthy and less well-off Americans?” When put that way, 57 percent wanted such policies pursued and 37 percent did not. It was as if the phrase “free market” in the Bloomberg poll changed the mind of nearly 1 in 10 Americans about the kind of policies they want.
The public’s reaction to the free market gets even more muddled when asked about specific practices. Polling shows the public is far less keen on the idea of free-market hegemony in practice than in principle. In the Washington Post poll, Americans supported raising the minimum wage by a 66 percent to 31 percent margin despite the fact that a minimum wage, let alone raising it, is not in keeping with free market principles. Similarly, unemployment insurance isn’t part of a free market, yet it won such overwhelming support in the districts polled that the results can be comfortably extrapolated to nationwide acceptance.
Americans clearly see some role for government, at least for relatively easy to explain interventions, such as the minimum wage or unemployment insurance. This position can be helpful to policy makers in that it does show some level of flexibility on the public’s part. But it also is confusing.
These contradictions play out on all sorts of issues. When it comes to healthcare, even before Obamacare was put into place, more than 50 percent, and possibly as much as 60 percent, of healthcare spending was government funded. Yet, since Obamacare, there has been a great hew and cry about government’s involvement in healthcare. Is there a pure, ideological reason that when someone turns 65 he or she should receive government healthcare, but at 64 he or she shouldn’t? Similarly, in education, is there a reason that we believe K-12 education should be completely publicly funded, but Pre-K and college education should get by with a patchwork quilt of private and public funding?
State governments lately have attempted to lure business into their states using tax incentives and partnerships. Although everyone want jobs in their states, the means of getting them go way beyond the operations of a free market and some incentives seem to stretch the government beyond its comfort zone.
The bottom line for those of us in Connecticut and throughout the nation is that we need to spend just a bit more time asking the simple question: What should government do? And we shouldn’t argue based upon strict ideology unless we’re willing to carry through.
If you want government out of healthcare based upon ideology, then seek to get government all the way out of healthcare and live with what that actually means. Do not talk about getting government out of healthcare while still asking them to pay the bill for the elderly. Be prepared for families going broke to save grandma or worse, grandma running out of money to pay for her care.
For the rest of us who have a tendency to blame elected officials — and rightly so at times — we must also acknowledge that we are not giving clear instructions about what we want from government. If one was doing the far more simple task of planning a New Year’s party, and gave mixed signals about what we wanted for music (nothing old, but lots of Beatles), food (make sure it is healthy, but be sure there’s fast food), timing (it has to be over by 1 a.m., but we want don’t want people to feel rushed), it would not be surprising if someone else ended up running the party. By acknowledging the contradictions and articulating the values that are most important to us, we might have the chance to keep control of the party. We need to understand and be clear about what we want from government.
Jason Paul of West Hartford is a partner in a campaign consulting company called What’s Next. He is also a student at the University of Connecticut Law School.