Former labor secretary Robert Reich recently blogged about those recent comments of Obama which have been so distorted over the last several days. The point was to take the media to task for their superficial coverage. An interesting read. But what really caught my eye was the way he introduced the topic.
I was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, 61 years ago. My father sold $1.98 cotton blouses to blue-collar women and women whose husbands worked in factories. Years later, I was secretary of labor of the United States, and I tried the best I could – which wasn’t nearly good enough – to help reverse one of the most troublesome trends America has faced: The stagnation of middle-class wages and the expansion of povety. Male hourly wages began to drop in the early 1970s, adjusted for inflation. The average man in his 30s is earning less than his father did thirty years ago. Yet America is far richer. Where did the money go? To the top. (Robert Reich, “Obama, Bitterness, Meet the Press, and the Old Politics” ; thanks to Richard Warnick for pointing it out)
This isn’t the first time recently someone has pointed out that the “a rising tide lifts all boats” bromide of the Right just doesn’t hold water. Barbara Ehrenreich discussed the point at length a couple months back in The Washington Post.
It begins to sound a bit naughty—all this talk about the need to “stimulate” the economy, as if we were discussing how to make a porn film. I don’t mean to trivialize our economic difficulties or the need for effective government intervention, but we have to face a disconcerting fact: For years now, that strange stimulus-crazed beast, the economy, has been going its own way, increasingly disconnected from the toils and troubles of ordinary Americans.
The economy, for example, has been expanding, at least until now, and growth is supposed to guarantee general well-being. As long as the gross domestic product grows, World Money Watch’s Web site assures us, “so will business, jobs and personal income.”
But hellooo, we’ve had brisk growth for the past few years, as the president has tirelessly reminded us, only without those promised increases in personal income, at least not for the poor and the middle class. According to a study just released by the Economic Policy Institute, real wages actually fell last year. Growth, some of the economists are conceding in perplexity, has been “decoupled” from widely shared prosperity. (Barbara Ehrenrich, “The Boom Was a Bust For Ordinary People,”
Market cheerleaders balk at the notion that there is anything wrong. They insist that we naysayers are just being pessimistic. The U.S. is doing fine! And sure, superficially things look good for the average person. The dollar figure of wages are up. People have continued to buy houses, cars, electronics, and all sorts of knick-knacks and trinkets from Wal-Mart. But look a little beneath the surface, and perhaps it is a different story. Benefits are being slashed. When adjusted for inflation, Reich and Ehrenrich are correct; the compensation of the average worker have decreased. Perhaps this is partly why the number of households where both parents work—something about which the “family values” crowd on the Right often complains, but about which they rarely seem to consider the roots. The illusion of prosperity is built on the record levels of consumer debt U.S. citizens have accumulated. Is that going to fly if we hit a prolonged economic recession? Seems a shaky foundation on which to claim that all is well in Zion.
Some people complain that the phrase “Social Justice,” is a misnomer. They aren’t entirely wrong. Strictly speaking, much of the agenda to which social justice refers has more to do with compassion than justice. But neither are they entirely correct. I think there is something fundamentally unjust when prosperity is shared only by a select few of those whose work made that prosperity possible. When the economy’s productivity rises and wealth increases, but the average worker upon whose labors the profits are made sees a dwindling share of the fruits of that harvest, that is a call for social justice.