Tonight President Obama will deliver his State of the Union Address to Congress. We are expecting the President to recommend an extension through the end of 2012 of extended unemployment insurance benefits and the payroll tax credit. It looks as though a major theme in the address — besides the catch phrase “built to last” — will be conventional policies aimed at reducing inequality, such as increased spending/tax credits for education and training.
Education and training are important and fruitful means of reducing inequality, but they fall well short of what's needed to reduce the degree of inequality we now face. A more forceful step in the direction of reducing inequality would include raising the minimum wage and making it easier for workers to form and join unions. We don't expect to hear the President call for either of those changes.
The President will propose paying for his new initiatives with higher taxes on wealthy households. As with education and training, restoring some sense of fairness to the tax code is a laudable goal but longer-lasting reductions in inequality will only come from policies that allow the pre-tax wages of more Americans to rise as the size and wealth of our economy grows.