Thomas Edsall Can’t Even Consider That the Way We Structure Markets Creates Inequality

I don’t like to pick on Thomas Edsall because I think he is usually a very astute observer of US politics and society. However, his column today embraces the truly awful framing of government versus market that pretty much guarantees doom for progressive policies.

The gist of it is that Democrats or liberals seem to accept a view that many people find obstacles to success in the economy, so they need the government to help them out. By contrast, Republicans or conservatives say that everyone has a decent chance if they are prepared to work hard.

The framing that we somehow need government intervention to give people a shot makes it hugely more difficult to address the problems of inequality. In reality, the government shapes just about every aspect of the economy, and in the last four decades it has shaped the economy in ways to redistribute income upward.

To take a prominent recent example, according to Forbes, we created at least five Moderna billionaires by allowing the company to have intellectual property claims over a technology (mRNA) that was largely developed on the government’s dime and Covid vaccines that were completely developed on the government dime. Of course it is not just the billionaires, there are many more people earning six, seven, and eight figure paychecks at Moderna, and other drug companies, because of the way the government dishes out patent monopolies and other forms of intellectual property.

We just got another dose of this upward redistribution in the widely touted CHIPS bill, which commits the government to spend $50 billion in research on developing new generations of silicon chips. And guess who will get the ownership of the intellectual property? I’m sure this will generate a whole new round of big grants from liberal foundations trying to find the causes of inequality.

There are many other ways we structure the market to ensure that income flows up. Steel and textile workers are forced to compete with low-paid workers in developing countries. Our doctors and dentists are largely protected from this competition. We structure the financial sector in ways that allow people to make millions and billions ripping off ordinary workers. (I tell this story in Rigged for anyone interested [it’s free.])

The key point is that we can address inequality without ever having the debate about whether poor people can get ahead if they work hard. We can just debate the specific policies that redistribute income away from low and moderate income people to those at the top.

For example, we can debate whether we can just have publicly funded research be in the public domain. This would mean that the next great cancer drug might sell for $200 rather than $200,000. And, we can debate whether highly paid professionals should face the same sort of competition as manufacturing workers.

Perhaps working class Republicans will insist that we have to keep rigging the market in ways that disadvantage them, but I sort of doubt that. Of course, we will never know as long as we are not allowed to have this sort of debate in the New York Times and other leading media outlets.

This first appeared on Dean Baker’s Beat the Press blog.

Dean Baker is the senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC.