President Barack Obama has his answer to Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” It is a war on inequality.
The president’s formal declaration of hostilities came in a speech at the Center for American Progress, predictably praised as brilliant by his journalistic cheerleaders and touted by the White House as setting out the cause that will define the rest of his presidency.
While LBJ’s war on poverty is nothing to emulate — it costs $900 billion a year, yet has manifestly failed in the stated goal of uplifting the poor — at least it had a clear, compelling rationale. Who can disagree that it would be better if fewer Americans were poor?
Obama’s implicit argument is that it would be better if fewer Americans were rich, or at least if they weren’t quite so offensively rich.
He relied on dubious research and tendentious analysis to make his case, without ever admitting what, for him, must be the crux of the matter. Surely, income inequality offends his egalitarian sense of justice and aesthetics, and even if he didn’t believe it had harmful real-word effects, he would wish the top 1 percent weren’t so wealthy as a social good in and of itself.
There is no doubt that we long ago exited the economic Golden Age of the mid-20th century, and we aren’t going to return to it. President Obama could give a speech about that and never need to make a questionable claim. But he wants to make a case for war.
In his speech, the president said that inequality is bad for the economy and cited “one study” showing that greater income inequality means more fragile growth and more frequent recessions. Of course, “one study” can show almost anything. The study in question analyzed developing economies. Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute points out a review of the literature by the Center for American Progress stipulated, “Ultimately, data and methodological issues mean that analyses are too imprecise to deliver definitive answers to this old and central question in economics research.”