The Republicans had their rah-rah, go-team party last week, and the Democrats have now had theirs this week. So, now that all the balloons have been dropped, the speeches have been delivered and analyzed from every angle, the pollsters have decided which are the swing states and who are the swing voters, and with just two months until election day, what single question must the voters ponder and answer in deciding which candidates and which party gets their votes?
After all is said and done, it really boils down to one basic question. Do you believe prosperity flows from the top down or from the bottom up? Put another way, do you want the necessary sacrifices to be borne by the wealthy or the poor? And a third iteration of the same basic question might be how do you believe a healthy and vibrant economy can best be created?
Each of these questions goes to the heart of the essentially differing world-views of the Republicans and their standard bearers, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, and the Democrats and their incumbent president and vice-president, Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
The campaigns will do everything they can to portray their opponents as lousy alternatives to lead the country in the next four years while they also try to project their candidates as the more competent to handle the job. But, in truth, the task of governing in modern-day America, apart, to be sure, from decisions of war and peace, is mostly about which of the two world-views about America you believe in.
And here is how those world-views differ and how they are theoretically supposed to work for the country:
Republicans believe in the top-down view of economic prosperity. They believe that the country’s economy works best when the wealthy are secure in their wealth and are enjoying profits from their investments. They believe that when the wealthy are prosperous (never mind for present purposes the obvious question of how the wealthy might ever not be prosperous), they promote business growth and job creation that benefits the entire society, raising, as it were, the standard of living of all citizens in that society.
The basis for this theory is that job are created by wealth and the desire for wealth and that only when those in position to create jobs feel wealthy (or, more generally, feel that they can take risks to get more wealthy) are jobs for the rest of the society going to be created in meaningful numbers.
In practical terms, this world-view results in calls for lower levels of taxation and regulation for those in the wealthy/job-creating classes of our society. Adherents of this view like to talk about “market economics,” by which they mean “laissez faire capitalism,” as in “keep government out of the business of business.” They use “freedom” as a catchword to identify that free-market form of capitalism that maximizes potential profits and minimizes required benefits for workers.
The other side of the coin for this world-view has to do with where the sacrifices are borne. Republicans prefer keeping wages and benefits low (more incentive for job creators to create jobs), health and safety regulations minimal (again, more incentive for job creators), aid to the poor and struggling working classes limited (less burden on those paying the taxes for such programs) and, above all else, taxes for the wealthy low (more incentive to increase profits, thereby presumably creating more jobs).
Democrats, on the other hand, believe, essentially, in exactly the opposite theory of how to create prosperity. They hold to the bottom-up view, which says that the country’s economy works best when the middle class is vibrant and growing, which, they believe, is most likely to occur when those living in or seeking to attain entry into the middle class are provided the means to improve their lots in life.
The basis for this theory is that an economy only functions at full efficiency when it has constant consumption of the goods and services that its businesses provide. And for that consumption to take place, the theory goes, the workers must be working and must be receiving income that is above the minimal level needed to subsist and survive.
Thus, Democrats favor things like government loans for education and job training, a minimum wage law that provides a living wage instead of a bare subsistence wage, significant unemployment insurance for extended periods during economic downturns, and lower taxes for those who are not wealthy and are not possessed of excess disposable income.
Democrats seek ways to make being employed worthwhile. They believe that a prosperous working class builds a large middle class and that a large middle class inures to the benefit of the entire society.
The other side of the coin for this world-view is that the sacrifices Democrats impose fall more heavily on the wealthy. Democrats prefer to keep taxes graduated so that the wealthiest pay a far greater share of their income in taxes than those who have less disposable income (beyond that necessary for a base standard of living). They favor greater restrictions on businesses in the form of health and safety regulations and on investments in the form of capital gains taxes and disclosure requirements.
At the extremes of both of these views are a plutocracy for Republicans (wherein the country is controlled by the super-rich and the mega-corporations) and a socialist state for Democrats (wherein all the productivity of the country’s economy is controlled by the government). And, not coincidentally, those most heavily aligned either party’s world-view are most likely to see the extreme results in the other party’s policies and actions.
Thus, rabid Republicans at the party’s convention last week frequently shouted “Socialist!” when Barack Obama’s name was mentioned, and hard core Democrats at the party’s convention this week used words like “Nazi” and Fascist” to describe Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.
But stripped clean of the extreme rhetoric and reactions, the foregoing description of each of the major parties’ world-view is what is really before the voters this year. The Romney/Ryan ticket will seek to unburden the wealthiest members of the society and the largest corporations in the economy at the expense of the working class and the non-working poor. The Obama/Biden ticket will seek to open the middle class to greater growth and prosperity at the expense of the wealthiest individuals and the largest corporations.
All the rhetoric and demagoguery notwithstanding, that basic distinction is really what, from a policy perspective, this election boils down to.