A Dangerous Description

This morning, on NPR’s Morning Edition, Wall Street Journal columnist David Wessel spoke about his new book, Red Ink, and in so doing appeared to shift the general understanding of the economy toward something tinged with moral terminology. To be fair, he isn’t the first to have done this: as writers like Ross Douthat have pointed out, teachers like Joel Osteen have occasionally argued that God’s will, and man’s righteousness, is reflected in income levels.

What David Wessel has done, however, is tip his hand toward a particular understanding of the economy that makes judgments regarding what the economy should do when it is working properly. And to do that, he seized upon an all-too-common phrase among columnists and bloggers: “winners and losers.”

The phrase is usually employed to describe the result of some government policy that enriches or sustains some at the expense of others: subsidies for solar power, for example, are described as picking one industry to “win” (government grants and the like) over another. Sometimes the “winners” thus picked only succeed because of government largesse, being otherwise unprofitable. This is seen as a mortal economic sin by many conservatives, and the sight of government-supported companies failing anyway has given rise to the maxim that “the government is bad at picking winners and losers.”

This seems like a defensible use of language, because what conservatives are describing here is both (1.) confined to the company level and (2.) a one-time result of a policy . At the company level, seeing the economy as a competition is right and proper, since companies do, in fact, compete with one another for market share. Similarly, I’m concerned but not overly so by discrete economic events being described in terms of wins and losses: that is, if I make a single really bad investment, it’s fair to say that I’ve lost that round.

Wessel’s peril lies in one phrase from his interview: “How much should we rely on the tax code to close the gap between winners and losers in our economy?”

This is a problem. Here, Wessel describes the participants in the economy in terms of wins and losses, effectively dividing the country into classes. And this description is particularly onerous because it divides the participants into classes based on a moral and meritocratic criterion: winning. “Winners,” in common parlance, are not born into winning. They do not effectively manipulate flawed systems into winning. The not-so-subtle implication by Wessel is that the gap exists for a reason: the rich have earned the right to be called winners, and the poor are, well, losers.

But an even deeper problem with employing language like this is that it implies a functional model of the economy, and describes a way that the economy is supposed to work. At a policy level, however, the economy is not supposed to merely sort citizens into classes of victors and vanquished. It is supposed to facilitate trade and promote the growth of wealth on a national scale. In a well-functioning economy, in fact, (to employ another well-worn cliche) a rising tide is supposed to lift all boats.

When it doesn’t – when the wealthy “win” at the expense of the poor, growth is meaningless. Policies should not be crafted to increase growth at all cost, even the cost of concentrating that growth solely in the hands of the already wealthy. It isn’t a matter of class warfare, or if it is, it’s only to reverse the effects of a model that already wages war on the ones who have “failed”. A good economy offers endless chances to change one’s circumstances, and doesn’t engage in the dangerous practice of labeling one who hasn’t become wealthy yet as a failure.

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