Reflecting on the recent outcome of the Canadian election, in which the Liberal Party of Canada cast itself as a progressive left of center party and reversed its fortunes in a major way to win a strong majority government, Larry Summers wrote in the Washington Post that “More infrastructure investment is not just good economics. It is good politics. Let us hope that American presidential candidates get the word!”
Anyone who has heard Mr. Summers speak over the course of at least the last five years will be familiar with his message, that he can’t imagine a better time—with historically low interest rates, lower wages, and higher unemployment—to be investing in the country’s infrastructure. Just when would be a better time to revamp Kennedy airport, and the nation’s roads, bridges, and dams, than now?
Paul Krugman echoes the same sentiment in a New York Times column entitled, somewhat inappropriately, “Keynes Comes to Canada.”
Good economics it is, and not simply for pump-priming reasons in the old Keynesian way. If there is a rock solid case to be made for productivity improving public investments, it should be made regardless of the state of the macro-economy.
But as the obvious frustration in the tone of Mr. Summers’ voice suggests, the fact that his advice does not lead to policy, suggests good economics doesn’t always line up with good politics. And there are a number of peculiarities in both personalities of political leaders, and the structure of politics, suggesting the Canadian example does not automatically translate to the American setting.
If you are interested in more details about the commentary I wrote for today’s Toronto Star, “The Inequality Debate: Canada’s middle class is losing ground,” you can find the original version in this post. You might also have an interest in this post, imaginatively entitled: “Who are the middle class?”
A number of journalists have recently addressed the topic, nicely offering a broader perspective. Whether you like to listen, watch, or read, you have some good choices.
Listen to this Ira Basen documentary called “What We Talk About When We Talk About The Middle Class,” which was broadcast on CBC Radio’s program “The Sunday Edition”; watch this documentary by Holly Doan for CPAC, which also features the much-cited New York Times article (look down the right column of the page to find it as “Vote 2015 Special: The Middle Class”); or read this Globe and Mail article, “The Middle Class: Just Who are They, Anyways?” by Erin Anderssen.
I hope all this helps to inform you about the talking point that, by waving around a New York Times article, leads our policy makers to dismiss the very fundamental and long-standng changes in the nature of work and incomes that are generating more insecurity for many Canadians, particularly young Canadians.
One economist recently suggested that there are as many as 156 definitions of the middle class. If this statistical potluck isn’t complicated enough, pollsters also tell us that a very large fraction of the population describe themselves as “middle class.”
You can see why politicians have made the “middle class” an election issue, but also why they might hesitate to answer the question: “Who are the middle class?”
It isn’t a contradiction for many people to feel they are in the “middle” even if their incomes are well above average or well below. There’s a certain truth to this because most Canadians share a set of common concerns that go beyond just their incomes.
You are “middle class” if you aspire to a better tomorrow, and have a hope for growth and progress in your circumstances; you are “middle class” if you are struggling with uncertainty, and worried if you and your family will be able to weather the storms that tomorrow will surely bring; and you are “middle class” if you have an expectation that your children should be treated fairly once you have done all you can to help them.
But while many people share these three concerns, their circumstances and capacities to manage them differ, something that is the result of growing inequality in access to secure and well-paying jobs.
Ninety percent of the population may belong to the “middle class”, but that doesn’t mean there is a one-size-fits-all-policy.
One way to get our heads around this is to let the answer to “Who are the middle class?” fall out of an answer to another question: “How is the economic pie divided?”