An Economic Growth Agenda for the Middle Class

Oct. 22, 2013, 1:20 a.m.

The central challenge for America in the 21st century is economic. To lead the world, we must ensure that we remain the engine of economic growth and innovation. We also must confront growing economic inequality and figure out how to prevent the further erosion of the middle class.

Unfortunately, Congress lacks a coherent vision for our economy. Everyone knows that Congress has failed at its most basic task of passing a budget on time. But even more problematically, our elected representatives have completely neglected to prepare America to compete in a global economy.

We need a new economic platform that gets past the stale rhetoric of extreme ideology. Instead of demagoguery against “Benedict Arnold” entrepreneurs and business leaders, we must think about what policies will actually create a favorable environment for companies to invest in and stay in the United States.

At the same time, we must prioritize basic government investments in public goods such as education—primary schools, vocational programs and colleges and universities—to provide all Americans with equal opportunities. In other words, we need an economic growth agenda for the middle class.

There are six prongs to such a plan that should attract bipartisan support, starting with tax reform.

We have a tax code written in the 1960s that actually incentivizes companies to park money overseas and is filled with inefficient loopholes and deductions that put small businesses at a disadvantage. Congress needs to rewrite the rules to incentivize companies to make investments in the United States. In short, we need a simpler, fairer, and more competitive tax code that phases out incentives that impede our progress like fossil fuel subsidies and unnecessary support to mature industries.

We absolutely must simplify the bureaucracy. Many small businesses and companies face yearlong delays in permitting and have to deal with scores of different agencies on compliance issues. We need to use technology to streamline the paperwork burden and create a one-stop online shop that is responsive to the needs of business owners.

A distinct part of the growth agenda is radically rethinking education. Attending a public university should be affordable for every American. We need to make investments in our public colleges and universities so they are not forced to make up for budget shortfalls by raising tuition for middle-class students.

We also need greater investment in primary education, particularly for improving the pay and professional training of our teachers. The 21st century requires us to make bold changes to prepare students for the jobs of the future—including broadband access in every classroom, democratizing education through massive open online courses (MOOCs) and adding computer coding to the curriculum.

Finally, we should support vocational programs in computer programming, CNC machines, robotics and 3-D printing that lead to good-paying jobs that are in high demand.

Supporting science and technology is a critical part of the growth agenda. Silicon Valley has flourished because the federal government made basic investments in disruptive technologies in the 1960s and 1970s. When we cut our funding to the National Institute of Health, or the National Science Foundation or the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, we are literally shortchanging future generations.

Congress’s cuts to science and technology research rank among the worst economic policy decisions in our country’s history. We can’t simply plan for the next year or five years—we need to make critical investments to maintain our position as a global leader in innovation for the next century.

We need to welcome immigrants, the hard-working individuals from around the world who set up businesses here, work here and create jobs here. Studies overwhelmingly show that immigration fuels economic growth and leads to more jobs for Americans. We need to expedite the path to green cards and citizenship for folks making meaningful contributions to our economy, in both the skilled and unskilled sectors. We also need an expansion for startup visas to incentivize immigrants to start businesses here.

The final prong is the creation of an adequate safety net. Our economy cannot grow if we continue to have policies that undermine the middle class. In the last 20 years household debt has increased and middle class wages have stagnated.

We need to provide programs for early education and childcare, protect Social Security, raise the minimum wage, and provide benefits for workers who are dislocated or in need of training. Otherwise, we risk returning to the gilded age of the 1920s when concentrated wealth impeded our economic progress.

From the time of Alexander Hamilton, Americans have been pragmatists when it comes to economic policy. We have avoided both free-market absolutism and the impediments of excessive government intervention.

Yet, our current Congress has strayed from this pragmatic tradition at a time when we most need it. It’s time to get back to the fundamental economic principles that made us a great economy with a thriving middle class.

Ro Khanna, a visiting lecturer in economics at Stanford and a former deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Commerce, is a Democratic candidate for California’s 17th Congressional District.

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