Alston: Style Without Substance

by Will Alston | 10/18/15 6:30pm

Politicians are frequently criticized for caring about little except themselves and their narrow cadres of supporters. Republicans in particular are often accused of being especially so, with the GOP frequently characterized as a party of navel-gazing white males. The Oct. 13 CNN Democratic debate and Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley’s recent campaign stop at the College, however, revealed that the Democratic candidates, too, are primarily focused on social issues of great importance to their own party, rather than the issue a huge plurality of voters consistently identify as the most important — the economy. With regards to economics, Democratic presidential candidates offer empty rhetoric consisting of appealing-sounding platitudes about making the wealthy pay “their fair share” and recipes for damaging states and individuals who — probably not coincidentally — do not vote Democratic.

To start, let’s take one of the more common themes of the Democratic presidential campaigns — that the wealthy should “pay their fair share.” Who are these “wealthy” that the Democrats want to pay for everything, exactly? Do business owners and upper-middle class families paying huge amounts of their income to combined federal, state and local taxes in big blue states like California and New York — more than 50 percent at the margin on income without even including state and local taxes — count as people who need to pay more? Or do these Democrats actually intend on taking a knife to the incomes of the Wall Street moguls and tech mega-millionaires who provide a bulwark of Democratic cultural and financial support alike? Admittedly, Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is an exception to this rule, as he does not take money from Super PACs and large corporations regardless of party affiliation.

It may be useful to illustrate what the policies of these Democratic candidates can do to an economy with a concrete example. I recently attended which O’Malley, the former governor of my home state of Maryland, gave at the Top of the Hop. At the event, O’Malley made much of his history of raising taxes on the wealthy in Maryland, but did not go much in depth about the outcomes of doing so. This was probably justifiable, as Maryland became one of the worst-performing states in the mid-Atlantic after he increased several dozen taxes and fees. Thousands of Marylanders migrated to other states, taking jobs and tax dollars with them. While this didn’t affect Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties much — solidly Democratic counties with lots of federal jobs — it had severe consequences for more rural counties that were more reliant on the private sector for employment. Ironically, these are the most economically disadvantaged counties in the state of Maryland — the sort of people O’Malley claims to want to help.

Finally, most of the Democratic candidates favor substantially increasing the minimum wage, with O’Malley and Sanders proposing to increase the national minimum wage to $15 per hour and Hillary Clinton proposing to raise the minimum wage to $12. While most economists do not think that small minimum wage increases would have substantial effects on unemployment, there is a near-universal consensus among economists — including French economist Thomas Piketty, who proposed a global wealth tax to combat inequality — that a very large hike would cost the U.S. a substantial numbers of jobs. In a wealthy locale like San Francisco or New York, a raise to $12 or $15 would not affect most workers and might be in line with costs of living. In a poor state like Mississippi, a raise to $15 would actually negatively affect a majority of workers and jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Just as with Martin O’Malley’s governing record, the concerns of these poorer, more rural areas — which lean strongly Republican — are being completely ignored by his and other Democrats’ minimum wage proposals.

Perhaps it should not be surprising that politicians would craft proposals primarily designed to benefit their own constituents, but I personally believe that America deserves better. I find it highly ironic that the Democrats — who rhetorically style themselves as the progressive champions of the downtrodden against the wealthy and powerful — would not only choose to focus less on the main issue a plurality of Americans care about, but put forward proposals that would actively harm some of the more economically disadvantaged areas of the country. Regardless of rhetoric, it goes to show that the GOP is not the only party guilty of only caring about itself.