Thomas Frank writes in today’s New York Times:
What we have watched unfold for a few decades, I have argued, is a broad reversion to 19th-century political form, with free-market economics understood as the state of nature, plutocracy as the default social condition, and, enthroned as the nationâ€™s necessary vice, an institutionalized corruption surpassing anything we have seen for 80 years. All that is missing is a return to the gold standard and a war to Christianize the Philippines.
Iraq comes pretty close, I’d say. But back in the day progressivism arose to combat the forces of plutocracy. Alas, now we have the New Democrats, who feel our pain but think we should be resigned to it:
Mounting a campaign against plutocracy makes as much sense to the typical Washington liberal as would circulating a petition against gravity. What our modernized liberal leaders offer â€” that is, when theyâ€™re not gushing about the glory of it all at Davos â€” is not confrontation but a kind of therapy for those flattened by the free-market hurricane: they counsel us to accept the inevitability of the situation and to try to understand how we might retrain or re-educate ourselves so we will fit in better next time.
This last point was a priority for the Clinton administration. But in â€œThe Disposable American,â€ a disturbing history of job security, Louis Uchitelle points out that the New Democratsâ€™ emphasis on retraining (as opposed to broader solutions that Old Democrats used to favor) is merely a kinder version of the 19th-century view of unemployment, in which economic dislocation always boils down to the fitness of the unemployed person himself.
Also at the New York Times, Paul Krugman writes about the disconnect between our “great” economy and the perceptions of most workers.
There are still some pundits out there lecturing people about how great the economy is. But most analysts seem to finally realize that Americans have good reasons to be unhappy with the state of the economy: although G.D.P. growth has been pretty good for the last few years, most workers have seen their wages lag behind inflation and their benefits deteriorate.
The disconnect between overall economic growth and the growing squeeze on many working Americans will probably play a big role this November, partly because President Bush seems so out of touch: the more he insists that itâ€™s a great economy, the angrier voters seem to get.
That’s exactly what sunk his dad’s administration.
But the disconnect didnâ€™t begin with Mr. Bush, and it wonâ€™t end with him, unless we have a major change in policies.
The stagnation of real wages â€” wages adjusted for inflation â€” actually goes back more than 30 years. The real wage of nonsupervisory workers reached a peak in the early 1970â€™s, at the end of the postwar boom. Since then workers have sometimes gained ground, sometimes lost it, but they have never earned as much per hour as they did in 1973.
Meanwhile, the decline of employer benefits began in the Reagan years, although there was a temporary improvement during the Clinton-era boom. The most crucial benefit, employment-based health insurance, has been in rapid decline since 2000.
Krugman cites a Pew poll that seems to shrug off workers’ concerns — people always say things were better in the old days. But, in fact, things were better in the old days.
Why have workers done so badly in a rich nation that keeps getting richer? Thatâ€™s a matter of dispute, although I believe thereâ€™s a large political component: what we see today is the result of a quarter-century of policies that have systematically reduced workersâ€™ bargaining power.
The important question now, however, is whether weâ€™re finally going to try to do something about the big disconnect. Wages may be difficult to raise, but we wonâ€™t know until we try. And as for declining benefits â€” well, every other advanced country manages to provide everyone with health insurance, while spending less on health care than we do.
The big disconnect, in other words, provides as good an argument as you could possibly want for a smart, bold populism. All we need now are some smart, bold populist politicians.
The easiest and most important thing the government can do to neutralize the adverse consequences of rising inequality is to make the tax system more progressive, not less. A reality-based government would react to growing pretax inequality by taxing the rich more, and subsidizing the poor more (through policies like the EITC) as well.
But when I read Paul’s call for “smart, bold populism,” I am reminded of earlier calls a couple of decades ago by Milton Friedman, Marty Feldstein, and their ilk for smart, bold conservatism or smart, bold libertarianism. But they did not get what they ordered: on the economic policy front the policies of Reagan and of Bush II have been a horrible botch. What populist policies that we can think of would be smart? And how can we make our high politicians allergic to populist policies that are stupid?
Speaking of health care, be sure to see this op ed in today’s Boston Globe by Cheri Andes. Families often cannot afford to pay the increasing premiums for employer-based health insurance, never mind staying insured if if you don’t get health benefits at all. See also this comment by Merrill Goozner.
At TPM Cafe, Elizabeth Warren suggests we should “give up on the term ‘middle class,’ and divide America into the Insured Class and the Uninsured Class.”
The difference between the ICâ€™s (insured class) and the UCâ€™s (uninsured class) would not be whether they were vulnerable to an economic collapse as a result of a medical problem. The difference would be how much vulnerability each group faces. The current health care finance system assures that everyone is vulnerable, and insurance makes the difference only between those who can be felled by one trip to the emergency room and those who are brought down financially only by the co-pays, uncovered expenses, and caps that eat them up when a more serious illness strikes.
I think the division should be between Ostriches (“It can’t happen to me”) and Realists (“Um, yes, it can.”
E.J. Dionne writes in today’s Washington Post:
Perhaps the release of the Census Bureau’s annual report on income, poverty and health insurance coverage in this particular week is a sign that God and statisticians have a sense of humor. The report reinforces what we knew at the time of Katrina — that the poor are still with us and that the middle class keeps losing ground.
The “good” news is that the poverty rate, the proportion of Americans who are poor, didn’t change much between 2004 and 2005, falling in a statistically insignificant way from 12.7 percent to 12.6 percent. The bad news is that the poverty rate, having risen steadily in recent years, is still higher than it was in 2001, when it stood at 11.7 percent.
Worse is that the proportion of the poor who are very poor has risen. People are considered in deep poverty if they have half or less of the yearly income of those at the poverty line. In 2005 half the poverty line for a family of three was $7,788; for a family of four it was $9,985. (Try living on that.) According to the new report, 43.1 percent of poor people lived in that sort of deep poverty — a record since 1975, when the government started assembling such statistics.
In the six economic recoveries since the early 1960s, this is the first time the poverty rate was higher in the recovery’s fourth year than it was when the recession was at its worst.
The number of Americans without health insurance rose, too, to 46.6 million in 2005, up from 45.3 million in 2004 and 41.2 million in 2001. The proportion without insurance is up from 14.6 percent in 2001 to 15.9 percent in 2005.
What about the middle class? Yes, the median income of American households rose by 1.1 percent last year after five years of decline. But most of the growth was in households headed by Americans 65 and over — who are helped, rightly, by substantial government benefits. In households headed by people under 65, incomes fell yet again.
This is interesting:
Adjusted for inflation, men’s earnings were lower in 2005 than they were in 1973.
The young may be understandably incredulous, but the Great Compression, as economists call it, was the single most important social fact in our country in the decades after World War II. From 1947 through 1973, American productivity rose by a whopping 104 percent, and median family income rose by the very same 104 percent. More Americans bought homes and new cars and sent their kids to college than ever before. In ways more difficult to quantify, the mass prosperity fostered a generosity of spirit: The civil rights revolution and the Marshall Plan both emanated from an America in which most people were imbued with a sense of economic security.
That America is as dead as the dodo. Ours is the age of the Great Upward Redistribution. The median hourly wage for Americans has declined by 2 percent since 2003, though productivity has been rising handsomely. Last year, according to figures released just yesterday by the Census Bureau, wages for men declined by 1.8 percent and for women by 1.3 percent.
As a remarkable story by Steven Greenhouse and David Leonhardt in Monday’s New York Times makes abundantly clear, wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of gross domestic product since 1947, when the government began measuring such things. Corporate profits, by contrast, have risen to their highest share of the GDP since the mid-’60s — a gain that has come chiefly at the expense of American workers.
For the bottom 90 percent of the American workforce, work just doesn’t pay, or provide security, as it used to.
The bottom 90 percent, mind you.
On the other hand, if you want to get ahead be the CEO in the defense industry. The Associated Press reports:
The chief executives of corporations making big profits from the war on terror are enjoying far bigger pay increases than CEOs of nondefense companies, according to a study by two liberal groups.
The study, conducted by the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy, found that, on average, CEOs of corporations with extensive defense contracts are getting paid about double what they made before Sept. 11, 2001.
This country is squashing its young. We’re sending them to die in a war we don’t believe in anymore. We’re cheating them so we can offer tax relief to the rich. And we’re stealing from them so that old gaffers like me, who want to live forever, can go in for an MRI if we have a headache.
A society that pays for MRIs for headaches and can’t pay teachers a decent wage has made a dreadful choice. But healthcare costs are ballooning, eating away at the economy. The boomers are getting to an age where their knees need replacing and their hearts need a quadruple bypass — which they feel entitled to — but our children aren’t entitled to a damn thing. Any goombah with a Ph.D. in education can strip away French and German, music, art, dumb down the social sciences, offer Britney Spears instead of Shakespeare, and there is nothing the kid can do except hang out in the library, which is being cut back too.
This week we mark the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the Current Occupant’s line “You’re doing a heckuva job,” which already is in common usage, a joke, a euphemism for utter ineptitude. It’s sure to wind up in Bartlett’s Quotations, a summation of his occupancy. Annual interest on the national debt now exceeds all government welfare programs combined. We’ll be in Iraq for years to come. Hard choices need to be made, and given the situation we’re in, I think we must bite the bullet and say no more healthcare for card-carrying Republicans. It just doesn’t make sense to invest in longevity for people who don’t believe in the future. Let them try faith-based medicine, let them pray for their arteries to be reamed and their hips to be restored, and leave science to the rest of us.
Cutting out healthcare for one-third of the population — the folks with Bush-Cheney bumper stickers, who still believe the man is doing a heckuva job — will save enough money to pay off the national debt, not a bad legacy for Republicans. As Scrooge said, let them die and reduce the surplus population. In return, we can offer them a reduction in the estate tax. All in favor, blow your nose.
I want to conclude by going back to the Thomas Frank op ed linked at the top of the post.
Historically, liberalism was a fighting response to precisely these conditions. Look through the foundational texts of American liberalism and you can find everything you need to derail the conservative juggernaut. But donâ€™t expect liberal leaders in Washington to use those things. They are â€œNew Democratsâ€ now, enlightened and entrepreneurial and barely able to get out of bed in the morning, let alone muster the strength to deliver some Rooseveltian stemwinder against â€œeconomic royalists.â€ …
…Democratic leaders must learn to talk about class issues again. But they wonâ€™t on their own. So pressure must come from traditional liberal constituencies and the grass roots, like the much-vilified bloggers. Liberalism also needs strong, well-funded institutions fighting the rhetorical battle. Laying out policy objectives is all well and good, but the reason the right has prevailed is its army of journalists and public intellectuals. Moving the economic debate to the right are dozens if not hundreds of well-funded Washington think tanks, lobbying outfits and news media outlets. Pushing the other way are perhaps 10.
The more comfortable option for Democrats is to maintain their present course, gaming out each election with political science and a little triangulation magic, their relevance slowly ebbing as memories of the middle-class republic fade.
Do try to enjoy your weekend, anyway.