Hillary Clinton’s website lists 31 alphabetized policies on everything from Alzheimer’s disease to workforce skills, each with its own 10-point plan. It’s wonky, to be sure. But does it add up to a governing philosophy?
Republicans say no, that Clinton is only offering a bunch of free stuff to Hispanics, blacks, women, gays and other special interests to buy votes. Bernie Sanders says she doesn’t do nearly enough to redistribute income.
Political scientist Jacob Hacker sees the question differently. Known for having coined the “public option” idea as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) Obamacare debate, the Yale professor more recently came up with the concept of “pre-distribution,” which aims to design government programs to spread economic power and rewards more widely. To Hacker, when Clinton talks about paying for family leave, improving skills, lifting wages, helping parents with college tuition and regulating shadow banks, she’s being more holistic than she gets credit for.
In a May 26 phone interview, I asked Hacker how his ideas have evolved and been received, and whether Clinton believes in pre-distribution. Here is a lightly edited transcript:
Dwyer: Give me the elevator pitch on pre-distribution — what is it, how does it differ from what we do now?
Hacker: The basic idea is that we shouldn’t focus simply on redistributing income and wealth after the fact. It’s the opposite of redistribution, in which the government lets markets be markets, then mops up afterward by taxing the winners to help the losers. We need to fix markets so they are less likely to produce unequal outcomes in the first place.
Most of the really big things that have made societies richer and more equal didn’t involve redistribution anyway. The best example is public education. Policies on labor unions also affected income distribution. And then there are basic macroeconomic policies that assure we get close to full employment, which tends to compress wages and reduce inequality.
Dwyer: What’s wrong with redistributing income?
Hacker: Politicians find it attractive to move away from a reliance on redistribution, which builds resentment and makes tax-cutting more salient with some voters.
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Redistribution criticism, though, is at odds with reality. Conservatives tend to think of government as helping other people, not themselves. And they focus on benefits that are allegedly unearned, like cash assistance, when our biggest redistribution programs are Social Security and Medicare. Neither is focused solely on the poor.
Dwyer: Have you discussed your ideas with any of the presidential candidates?
Hacker: Yes, I have consulted with the Clinton campaign. I haven’t spoken to Sanders since he started running for president. Her agenda is less reliant on tax increases than his is. She wants to use the public sector to solve problems, and she’s not that interested in wrenching, turn-everything-upside-down reforms of the kind Sanders is running on.
Dwyer: Do you think Clinton likes the idea of pre-distribution?
Hacker: She is certainly an advocate of making markets work better. There were a lot of people like that in American politics not too long ago. They weren’t anti-capitalist. They believed you needed strong rules and effective government for capitalism to work. It was half of the Republican Party at one point, including President Eisenhower and to a significant extent President Nixon.
Dwyer: What’s happening in labor markets that makes pre-distribution necessary?