Bill de Blasio and the Populist Mirage

Income inequality would be easier to fix if both parties stopped coddling their core voters

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De Blasio's campaign centered on the gap between New York City's rich and poor; in his inaugural speech, he vowed to raise taxes on the wealthy to boost spending on social programs.

New York City begins its mayoral terms immediately, in your face, with an inauguration on Jan. 1. Typically, these are parochial affairs, with the new mayor greeted by a hungover fusillade of local crises--blizzards, strikes, budget deficits. This year's ceremony was more portentous, though, one of the rare times that the city--an eccentric nation unto itself--has sent a political message that may be relevant to the rest of the country. That message is a new left populism, personified by Mayor Bill de Blasio and ratified by the presence of Bill and Hillary Clinton, who never seem far from the next new thing. It is no secret that income inequality and its faithful sidekick, middle-class stagnation, will be at the top of both parties' domestic agenda in 2014.

We will ask the very wealthy to pay a little more in taxes so that we can offer full-day, universal pre-K and after-school programs," said de Blasio, announcing his signature proposal. "Those earning between $500,000 and $1 million ... would see their taxes increase by an average of $973 a year. That's less than three bucks a day--about the cost of a small soy latte at your local Starbucks."

Sounds reasonable enough, despite the Starbucks dig. I would imagine most New Yorkers earning more than $500,000 would gleefully toss $973 into the pot if they thought that universal pre-K would actually help the poor. The greater likelihood, though, is that the money will fall down a very dark hole into the city's sclerotic, union-paralyzed bureaucracy. If Democrats want to make government the agency of opportunity for the poor, they're going to have to run it better.

But de Blasio was also being a bit disingenuous. Even if government ran as smoothly as FedEx and money could be successfully pumped into reformed social programs, the sources of income disparity (the Democratic formulation) and middle-class stagnation (the Republican version) would still be with us.

If the Democrats want to be serious about income disparity, they're going to have to address the problems not just at the top of the social spectrum but also at the bottom--the explosion of single-parent families and out-of-wedlock births that have caused the bottom to drop out of working-class-family incomes.

If the Republicans want to be serious about middle-class stagnation, they're going to have to address the plutocratic clot at the top. They're going to have to address the subtle, almost surreptitious regulatory and tax-code tilt toward the financial sector over the past 40 years--especially its gamier casino aspects. In fairness, this has been a bipartisan excess. Bill Clinton's ugliest hour came with the deregulation of Wall Street, which made the Great Recession inevitable. If Hillary runs for President, she will have to find a way to detach herself from her husband's famous funders. She'll certainly have to do more than attach herself to the populist rhetoric of the moment.

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