By Charles P. Pierce at 9:00am
President Obama speaks on economic inequality yesterday at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
The president gave an important speech yesterday. The topic was income inequality and the dangers that our current rate of income inequality poses to the ongoing creative act of self-government. Income inequality is a hot topic at the moment. The pope is speaking out strongly — and caustically — about the subject. People are starting to notice that income inequality is not merely the fact that some people are “left behind” but, rather, that it has become something structural in our society and our government. The president gave an important speech yesterday. (Tell me again, by the way, that Occupy had no effect on our national politics. The president isn’t pitching a tent in Zuccotti Park here but, without the agitation therein, he has a harder pull at re-election and he doesn’t give this speech.) This is some of what the president said.
Nevertheless, during the post-World War II years, the economic ground felt stable and secure for most Americans, and the future looked brighter than the past. And for some, that meant following in your old man’s footsteps at the local plant, and you knew that a blue-collar job would let you buy a home, and a car, maybe a vacation once in a while, health care, a reliable pension. For others, it meant going to college — in some cases, maybe the first in your family to go to college. And it meant graduating without taking on loads of debt, and being able to count on advancement through a vibrant job market.
Now, it’s true that those at the top, even in those years, claimed a much larger share of income than the rest: The top 10 percent consistently took home about one-third of our national income. But that kind of inequality took place in a dynamic market economy where everyone’s wages and incomes were growing. And because of upward mobility, the guy on the factory floor could picture his kid running the company some day.
But starting in the late ‘70s, this social compact began to unravel. Technology made it easier for companies to do more with less, eliminating certain job occupations. A more competitive world lets companies ship jobs anywhere. And as good manufacturing jobs automated or headed offshore, workers lost their leverage, jobs paid less and offered fewer benefits.
So far, so New Democrat. Times change. The dynamic and almighty “Market” has its victims. Globalization has its costs. Free trade comes at a price. Economic forces are like hurricanes and tornadoes — forces of nature that cannot be stopped, but their effects only mitigated, and the difference in the parties simply a disagreement in how actively the government should be involved in that mitigation. It’s Morning In American again, and it’s 1994.
As values of community broke down, and competitive pressure increased, businesses lobbied Washington to weaken unions and the value of the minimum wage. As a trickle-down ideology became more prominent, taxes were slashed for the wealthiest, while investments in things that make us all richer, like schools and infrastructure, were allowed to wither. And for a certain period of time, we could ignore this weakening economic foundation, in part because more families were relying on two earners as women entered the workforce. We took on more debt financed by a juiced-up housing market. But when the music stopped, and the crisis hit, millions of families were stripped of whatever cushion they had left.
And the result is an economy that’s become profoundly unequal, and families that are more insecure. I’ll just give you a few statistics. Since 1979, when I graduated from high school, our productivity is up by more than 90 percent, but the income of the typical family has increased by less than eight percent. Since 1979, our economy has more than doubled in size, but most of that growth has flowed to a fortunate few. The top 10 percent no longer takes in one-third of our income — it now takes half. Whereas in the past, the average CEO made about 20 to 30 times the income of the average worker, today’s CEO now makes 273 times more. And meanwhile, a family in the top 1 percent has a net worth 288 times higher than the typical family, which is a record for this country. o the basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed. In fact, this trend towards growing inequality is not unique to America’s market economy. Across the developed world, inequality has increased. Some of you may have seen just last week, the Pope himself spoke about this at eloquent length.”How can it be,” he wrote, “that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
This is where the speech begins to get important, and not just because the president is quoting the barbed criticisms leveled by the pope. It is here where the president begins to insist that there be a new paradigm in how we talk about income inequality and what we do about it. It is here where he begins to insist that income inequality is not the result of the impersonal consequences of economic transition but, rather, the result of choices made and not made, the result of actions taken and not taken, and all of them deliberate and calculated to benefit a specific class of people. The crash of 2008 was not inevitable. It had human causes that were very much avoidable. It is here where he begins to talk about the dangers of oligarchy, and about how oligarchy can turn the promise of self-government into a sucker’s game.
But this increasing inequality is most pronounced in our country, and it challenges the very essence of who we are as a people. Understand we’ve never begrudged success in America. We aspire to it. We admire folks who start new businesses, create jobs, and invent the products that enrich our lives. And we expect them to be rewarded handsomely for it. In fact, we’ve often accepted more income inequality than many other nations for one big reason — because we were convinced that America is a place where even if you’re born with nothing, with a little hard work you can improve your own situation over time and build something better to leave your kids. As Lincoln once said, “While we do not propose any war upon capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else.”
This was an important speech and the way you know it was an important speech is by how thoroughly it was ignored, and by what distances its basic point was missed, by the members of our courtier press, and by the wise elders of what has become known as The Village. It was received as just another tactical bit of rhetoric from the White House, one speech among many and not anywhere near as important to the events of the day as the fact that Paul Ryan and Patty Murray failed to come to a “deal” on the economy, and deal that, even in the rosiest scenario possible, will do absolutely nothing to correct the serious crisis that the president tried to address. (Is the president trying to “distract” the country’s attention from the rapidly improving health-care website? It would be irresponsible not to speculate.) The president was talking about the simple fact that our economy has been rigged so as to become incompatible with our government, which is to say, with all of us. This did not happen by accident. This was not immutably decreed by forces beyond our control.
We did not talk seriously about class in our politics for a very long time. Perhaps the most lasting effect of the McCarthy-McCarran redbaiting of the 1950’s was that it took class-based rhetoric — and most of the people who engaged in it — off the board at the same time that the economy was booming generally in the years after World War II. To talk about class division in this country became the very definition of being un-American. We still are not comfortable talking about it, but the effects of a deepening class divide are becoming too obvious to ignore. We have the most oligarchically inclined (and the most corporate-friendly) Supreme Court since the 1880’s, and it has been handing down decisions — Citizens United, Shelby County — all of which have the effect to choking off solutions to the crisis that might be found through the vehicle of elections. In a time of recession, and of unsupportable unemployment, we are arguing about how much to cut the food-stamp program, and yapping forever about The Deficit at a time when interest rates are subterranean and the infrastructure on which most of the country depends is falling apart. The notion that the country is rigged for the rich is a perfect anesthetic by which to deaden the enthusiasm for a class-based politics — the courtier media is, of course, hopeless in this regard — and that is a deliberately calculated result, too.
We cannot have a viable self-government as designed by the Founders if daily economic pressures prevent the exercise of political rights, or conspire to exact too great a personal cost to their exercise. We cannot have a political commonwealth if economic inequality inculcates in the general population a feeling that their government is distant, beyond their control, and the property primarily of someone else. There is something of a stirring around these simple facts that has penetrated even the walls of the Vatican, which is a lot of things, but self-governing is not one of them. Small wonder that it has come to the attention of a twice-elected president. He has gone out of his way to out this issue on the table right at the time when a well-financed “centrist” backlash has been building against politicians who are talking openly about how income inequality was deliberately engineered, and about who engineered it and on whose behalf.
But, as we often say around here, faith without works, Mr. President. For example, the egregious Trans-Pacific Partnership is coming down the fast track. You can’t find a better example of something aimed at enriching the people, and empowering the forces, that deliberately have engineered income inequality, or a better example of who engineered it and on whose behalf. Your move, Mr. President.