How "Populist" Tax-Hiker Edwards Will Save Us from "Income Inequality"

Economics reporter David Leonhardt takes a shine to Edwards' "populist" (not liberal?) tax-raising rhetoric at the expense of Republican Mitt Romney.

Economics columnist-reporter David Leonhardt weighed the philosophies of two ultra-wealthy presidential candidates, Democratic trial lawyer John Edwards and Republican businessman Mitt Romney, and found the argument of the "populist" Democrat (the one who favors tax hikes and universal health coverage) more compelling, judging by column inches and a sympathetic tone that also worked in familiar liberal nostrums about growing inequality and the widening "income gap" ("Two Candidates, Two Fortunes, Two Distinct Views of Wealth."

Leonhardt's long thinkpiece appeared on Sunday's front page under the rubric, "Age of Riches: A Political Divide," a phrase that packs a lot of liberal assumptions in itself

"By the final weeks of 1984, well before either turned 40, John Edwards and Mitt Romney had already built successful careers. But the two men were each on the verge of an entirely new level of financial success."


"Like thousands of other Americans in a global, high-technology economy in which government was pulling back and wealth was being celebrated, Mr. Edwards and Mr. Romney used talent, hard work and - as both have suggested - luck to amass fortunes. They became a part of a rising class of the new rich.

"Whether this class is a cause for concern - whether it deserves some blame for the economic anxiety felt by many middle-class families - has become a central issue in the 2008 presidential race. And Mr. Edwards and Mr. Romney are basing their candidacies in large measure on the very different lessons each has taken from his own success.

"Some people come from nothing to being wildly successful and their response is, 'I did this on my own,' Mr. Edwards said in an interview. 'I came to a different conclusion. I believe that I did work hard, and I think people should work hard, but I think my country was there for me every step of the way.'

Today, he added, 'the problem is all the economic growth is going to a very small group of people.'

Mr. Romney, by contrast, talks about the ways that his experiences at Bain showed him how innovative and productive the American economy can be and, particularly, how free markets can make life better for everyone.

"'There is a model of thought among the Democrats - that the amount of money, the amount of wealth in a nation, is a fixed amount,' he said in an interview. 'And that if Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are making a lot of money, that just means somebody else is not able to make as much. That happens to be entirely false.'

"The two men represent a clear divide between the Democratic and Republican parties over whether the government should redistribute more wealth, from the rich downward, now that economic inequality is greater than it has been since the 1920s."

Leonhardt, not surprisingly, took the side of the "populist" (not liberal?) Democrat Edwards.

"Mr. Edwards is running perhaps the most populist campaign of any major candidate in a generation. He has called for universal health insurance, tighter trade restrictions, more financial aid for college students and higher taxes on the rich. In several cases, his main Democratic rivals have followed his lead. The political system is now rigged to help the rich, Mr. Edwards says, which makes a journey like his, from modest beginnings to the middle class and far beyond it, much harder than it was."

One subhead to the story? "Income Gap Widens."

"Cultural norms and basic economics, then, are two main reasons the rich have become richer. Mr. Edwards's campaign is focusing on the third: the ways that government policy has intensified the trends.

"Over the past generation, both the Democratic and Republican parties have embraced more free-market policies. There have been obvious reasons for the drift. Central planning was exposed as a failure across the Soviet empire, while the socialist-leaning economies of Europe have struggled to keep up with the growth rates of the more open American economy.

"But Mr. Edwards argues that the changes have gone too far. As he campaigns across Iowa and New Hampshire, he says that the tax code now favors wealth over work, that Washington lobbyists protect drug and health insurance companies and that trade deals are written to lift corporate profits rather than the middle class.

"And Mr. Edwards's broad argument - that the middle class is not doing as well as it used to - also has evidence on its side. The income of the median family has risen only about 25 percent in the last 30 years, after adjusting for inflation. From 1947 to 1977, the same measure more than doubled."

Never mind that the purchasing potency of those average median family incomes hasbeen upgradedimmeasurably since 1977 (home computers and DVD's, for astart), or the fact that benefits like health care and 401K's aren't included in most measures of income. Leonhardt also doesn't explain how Edwards' plan to raise taxes on "the wealthy" will boost relative pre-tax income of median families.

Typical for a Times reporter Leonhardt avoided the dreaded "liberal" label, at least when describingtheDemocrat politician John Edwards.

"In the American Prospect, a liberal magazine, Ezra Klein called Mr. Edwards 'the first genuine populist in decades with a serious shot at the presidency.'

"His populist bent helps explain why only one high-profile economist - James K. Galbraith of the University of Texas,the son of John Kenneth Galbraith - has joined the campaign. Some economists have been especially dismayed by Mr. Edwards's negative talk about trade."