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  • Sheri Rivlin Allan Rivlin

How to Fix the Democratic Economic Message Part 4: Five Potential Messages

Recapping Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series: If Democrats hope to regain their lost advantage in public trust to get the economy moving and create good jobs, then we need clear and compelling ways to express our ideas. What is needed is not another 10-point plan, but rather a 10 word explanation of the logic behind our proposals. Voters need to know what we see as the problem and how our approach will work to make their lives better. In short, we need a How-It-Works statement that passes the Listerine test described in Part 3.

We are not starting this effort from scratch. Many Democratic elected leaders, economists, strategists, and columnists have worked this problem in the past and we have a lot of proposed themes to use as a starting point. Quite a lot in fact which may be why our message has seemed so scattered.

Here, we outline just some of the potential message frames that should be developed and improved in a sustained process to retool the Democratic economic message. This list is neither complete nor perfected. This is just the starting point for a process designed to take us to a more complete list of better messages. (The process will be described in Part 5.) Some of these messages come closer to passing the Listerine test than others. A few policies are attached to each of the frames as examples, but most of our policies could be attached to many of these overlapping potential message frames.

The Innovation and Growth Economy: We need to grow the economy by regaining our lost global leadership in innovation and entrepreneurship.

The Problem: A lack of dynamism and growth as the pace of innovation and new business formation has slowed.

Approach to Solution: Support the inventors and entrepreneurs that create new businesses and new industries. Spread the gains of technology beyond the technology sector to include all sectors of the economy.

Policies: Tax reform, regulatory reform, trade policies that open foreign markets to US exports, and investments in basic sciences, medical breakthroughs, applied research and development and advanced manufacturing techniques.

This frame may seem somewhat moderate for today’s Democratic Party but coming from Will Marshall’s Progressive Policy Institute this is close to Bill Clinton’s winning 1992 message. To learn more about these ideas download Unleashing Innovation and Growth from the PPI website.

The Middle Out Economy: We need to create good jobs by strengthening the American middle class.

The Problem: Decades of trickle-down economics has hollowed out the middle class, leading to high levels of household debt, diminished purchasing power, educational attainment, new business formation and trust in institutions.

Approach to Solution: Strengthen and rebuild the middle class with higher wages, lower debt, and more opportunities.

Policies: Raise the minimum wage, strengthen unions, employee stock ownership, early childhood education, job skills training, college affordability, middle class tax cuts, and programs that support working families.

To learn more about these ideas read Hollowed Out by David Madland for a description of the problem and the Report of the Commission on Inclusive Prosperity by Larry Summers and Ed Balls for a list of potential policies. Both are associated with the Center for American Progress.

The Equitable Economy: We need to create good jobs by reducing economic and political inequality so average people have a chance to succeed.

The Problem: Extreme levels of inequality in wealth, incomes, and political power have rigged the system to benefit only the very rich.

Approach to Solution: We need to harness people power through the political process to oppose the power of billionaires, big banks, and global corporations that are shipping jobs overseas, keeping wages low, and keeping families in a cycle of debt.

Policies: Tax policies to make sure the wealthy pay their fair share to fund programs that lift families up economically including jobs that pay a living wage, a right to stable healthcare and affordable college education.

This is, of course, the economic message from the Bernie Sanders campaign. It is similar in many respects to the Middle Out message but with far greater emphasis on restricting the power of those at the top of the wealth gap than on building the strength of those in the middle or bottom, although proponents of each of these views would say both aspects are necessary. To learn more about these ideas go to the Bernie Sanders campaign website or read the intellectual underpinnings in books like Capital in the Twenty First Century by Thomas Piketty.

The Consumer Driven Economy: We need to create good jobs by getting more money into the hands of hardworking American families so they can become the job creators in their local communities.

The Problem: Average families across America have too much debt and not enough money to buy the goods and services families need, and businesses need as sales.

Approach to Solution: Invest in American families and businesses to get more money flowing through local communities. When families have economic stability, they buy goods and services, make home renovations, and eat out a little more often creating the demand that allows area businesses to hire more workers and pay them more, continuing the cycle.

Policies: Get Americans working fixing roads, bridges and schools, help families lower their home mortgage and student loan debt; raise the minimum wage and cut payroll taxes, educate and train workers for higher paying jobs.

The authors of this article developed this frame to translate the theory behind basic Keynesian economic stimulus into language that coveys the direct benefit to consumers. We discussed it at length here.

The Sustainable Growth Economy: We need to create good jobs by making smart, well-planned investments in long-term growth that are fair as well as economically and environmentally sustainable.

The Problem: Low savings and investment rates, and shortsighted political emphasis on tax cuts in the public sector and quarterly profits in the private sector have given us slow growth, and unsustainably unequal economy, and dire environmental threats.

Approach to Solution: Rather than choosing between economic growth, social fairness, and environmental sustainability, we can have all three if we choose sustainable development based on ramped up public and private investments in well-planned project to transform our economy to modern technology and clean energy sources.

Policies: Tax reform that increases government revenue, dramatic cuts in military spending, to fund investments in America’s infrastructure in a lower carbon future. Public and private sector long range planning to help America lead the world in conversion to non-carbon energy.

This frame is distilled from Building a New American Economy by Jeffrey Sachs. The book starts with a Forward by Senator Bernie Sanders but readers will find little emphasis on Sanders’ themes until the final chapters. The balance of the book reads like a hybrid of the PPI Innovation and Growth and the CAP Middle Out approaches within an Al Gore inspired Green Economy frame.

Anyone reading this list will have quibbles with these messages, may like some of these, or none of these, or have other frames that could be added. We are not claiming to have the answer today, but each of these formulations would be better than no coherent approach to economic issues at all which is where Democrats have been stuck for nearly a decade. What is needed is a process to get to the message that has eluded our party for several cycles.

Of course, President Trump will continue to steal most of the headlines and most of the attention of Democrats will be on opposing his policies. But Democrats do not have a compelling economic message and cannot afford to go into the next election without one. We are not claiming to have the answer today. What is needed is a process to get to the message that has eluded our party for several cycles. We will detail a process to develop and improve economic messaging in time for the 2018 the next post in this series.

How to Fix the Democratic Economic Message,

Part 1: What Happened in 2016 – is here.

Part 2: Progressives Need Both Offense and Defense – is here.

Part 3: The Listerine Test – is here.

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