U.S. Senate hopeful Chris Murphy brought a question to New Haven—one that we’ll be hearing often in the next year, in Connecticut, and around the country.
Murphy summarized the question this way: “Whether we’re going to have a middle class or not” in America.
Then he offered a longer version, one to which Democratic and Republican candidates for federal office can give genuinely different responses: What’s the best way for government to close the inequality gap?
Murphy gave his answer at length to two dozen students gathered in Yale’s Dwight Hall last Thursday evening. He expects to keep fielding the question over and over as he runs for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Joe Lieberman. He expects his opponents to keep fielding it. He expects candidates for Senate and Congress all across the U.S. to keep fielding it in the 2012 campaign season, which now begins in earnest in Connecticut.
“That will be the defining argument,” Murphy told the students, as he paced back and forth nonstop in front of a dormant fireplace during a 45-minute campaign stop before the Yale College Democrats. “I’m happy to have it.”
The open Senate seat has already attracted a field of prominent candidates mounting energetic campaigns. Linda McMahon (who ran for the state’s other seat two years ago) and former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays are vying for the Republican nomination. Besides Murphy, the Democratic field includes former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz and state Sen. William Tong.
“I think we’re making a fundamental choice in the policies that we set and the tax rates that we write and the investments that we choose to make or not make as to whether we’re going to recede into a world where we have 5 percent haves and 95 percent have-nots,” Murphy said in his New Haven visit. He noted that inflation-adjusted real income has stayed flat for 99 percent of U.S. families over the past 40 years, while the top 1 percent’s has risen 300 percent. He noted that the country’s richest 400 families have more wealth than the bottom 100 million.
“I don’t begrudge those 400 people. They didn’t steal the money. They played by the rules,” insisted the clean-cut Congressman from Connecticut’s Fifth District. “I want more people” to have the opportunity to make a better living by “revising the tax code” (raising taxes on the wealthy) in order to make government “investments” in education, infrastructure (roads, bridges, mass transit), and emerging industries.
Republican candidates for federal office have repeatedly argued that the government needs to lessen regulation on business and cut taxes in order to free up money for the private sector to create jobs.
Meanwhile, an influential conservative magazine, the Weekly Standard, is urging Republican candidates to take a bolder position on inequality rather than cede the argument to the Democrats by accepting the premises of the Occupy Wall Street movement (which Murphy praised Thursday night for raising important issues” and, he said he hopes, “remind[ing] Democrats who we should be fighting for”). To the Standard, the question isn’t how government should go about reducing inequality, but rather whether it should.
A Standard editorial in the issue out the same week as Murphy’s visit argued: “The way out is to reject the assumption that government’s purpose is to redress inequalities of income. Inequalities of condition are a fact of life. Some people will always be poorer than others. So too, human altruism will always seek to alleviate the suffering of the destitute. There is a place for reasonable and prudent actions to improve well-being. But that does not mean the entire structure of our polity should be designed to achieve an egalitarian ideal. Such a goal is fantastic, utopian even, and one would think that the trillions of dollars the United States has spent in vain over the last 50 years to promote ‘equality as a fact and equality as a result’ would give the egalitarians pause.”
Murphy was asked about that argument. (Click on the play arrow at the top of this story to watch him respond.) He insisted he doesn’t seek to “confiscate” wealth or redistribute it. Rather, he said, he supports creating “wealth generators.” He argued that history (the post World War II era) shows that building infrastructure and boosting schools and enabling more people to attend college leads to millions of new jobs—in the private sector.
He called it a myth that government growth has led to recession. The government spends about the same percentage of the gross domestic product that it did in 1980, he said. What has changed: tax rates are at a 60-year-low.
“There are more people living in poverty today than ever before. There are more children going to bed hungry,” Murphy said. “Yeah, we’re always going to have the poverty. We’re always going to have the poorest 10 percent of Americans. But it’s not the case that we can’t have less people that are poor …. ... Listen. Trickle-down economics, which is the essential backbone of their tax theory ... has been debunked. .. If there was a correlation between the amount of regulation you have and the strength of your middle class, Sub-Saharan Africa would have the strongest middle class in the world. Our regulatory system has ... built our middle class. It hasn’t weakened it.”