On Tuesday, President Obama participated in a panel discussion on poverty at Georgetown University. Hitting on his common talking points from income inequality to infrastructure, the president’s remarks were not extraordinarily surprising. However, what gave the event more flavor than a typical stump speech was remarks made by another panelist — Arthur Brooks, president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
While Dr. Brooks gave the President all the respect that his office deserves, the think tank president did not shy away from challenging the administration’s class warfare:
Now, since we believe that there should be public goods, then we’re really talking about the system that provides them and provides them efficiently. The President talked about the changing structure of the income distribution, and it’s unambiguously true. What I would urge us to regret is this notion that it’s not a shift, but a transfer. It’s not a transfer.
Since the 1970s, it’s not that the rich have gotten richer; because the poor have gotten poorer. The poor are not having their money taken away and given to the rich. The rich have gotten richer faster than the poor have moved up. And we might be concerned with that because that also reflects on opportunity. And as an opportunity society, as an equal opportunity society, we should all be really concerned with that.
But the extent that we can get away from this notion that the rich are stealing from the poor, then we can look at this in I think in a way that’s constructive. Why? Because the rich are our neighbors and the poor are our neighbors, and everybody else should be our neighbors and they’re all our kids. And I think getting away from that rhetoric is really important.
Dr. Brooks’ remarks are well substantiated by the economic evidence. While it’s undeniable that the rich have gotten richer over the past few decades, the size of the United States economy has grown faster. To be specific, the inflation-adjusted income of the top 1% has increased nearly 400% since 1979. However, the US’s inflation-adjusted gross domestic product has increased by over 500% over the same time period.
In short, the rich are not stealing from the poor. They’re simply getting a bigger slice of a growing pie. Dr. Brooks deftly points this out, shifting focus to addressing the underlying causes of poverty instead of sticking pitchforks at the rich.
This is an important rhetorical trick for the center-right to learn since there are so many government roadblocks that need removal to put the poor on the path to prosperity. Occupational licenses, mandatory minimums, civil asset forfeiture, failing public schools, the drug war, the minimum wage — the list goes on and on. Until libertarians and conservatives change the poverty narrative to focus on opportunity instead of welfare, income redistribution will continue to be a distraction.