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Guide to Debating Your Crazy Right-wing Uncle at the July 4th Picnic

Arguing with ignorant relatives about inequality: Dirty work, but someone's gotta do it.
 
 
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With the July 4 holiday upon us, you may find yourself gathering with family this long weekend. That might mean a barbecue and fireworks, but it may also mean something else: political conversations with your crazy relatives.

Here, then, is a citizen’s guide to debunking a half-dozen absurdities and myths you may find thrown at you, with an emphasis on the economy (particularly, the inequality debate).

1) CLAIM: “The poor are doing just fine!”

Example: Robert Rector:

In 2005, the typical household defined as poor by the government had a car and air conditioning. For entertainment, the household had two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, and a VCR. If there were children, especially boys, in the home, the family had a game system, such as an Xbox or a PlayStation.

HOW TO RESPOND: The idea here is that a rising tide lifts all boats, but as Warren Buffet  has noted, in reality, a rising tide lifts all yachts. Even Adam Smith, the hero of classical economists,  knows this is bunk: “A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life … But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty.” The real question is not whether the poor can afford silly amenities, like a DVD player or an XBox, it’s whether they can afford essentials: food, clothing, comfort, shelter, etc. For poor Americans, the prices of these goods have increased dramatically, while the price of consumer goods  has decreased dramatically. By singling out only consumer goods that have gotten cheaper, Rector disguises  the real costs of inequality: worse health outcomes, worse educational outcomes and decreased social cohesion.

2) CLAIM: “Rich people work harder, they deserve what they’ve earned!”

Example: David Brooks:

For the first time in human history, the rich work longer hours than the proletariat.

Today’s super-wealthy no longer go off on four-month grand tours of Europe, play gin-soaked Gatsbyesque croquet tournaments or spend hours doing needlepoint while thinking in full paragraphs like the heroines of Jane Austen novels. Instead, their lives are marked by sleep deprivation and conference calls, and their idea of leisure is jetting off to Aspen to hear Zbigniew Brzezinski lead panels titled ”Beyond Unipolarity.” Meanwhile, down the income ladder, the percentage of middle-age men who have dropped out of the labor force has doubled over the past 40 years, to over 12 percent.

HOW TO RESPOND: Really? Jamie Dimon works harder than a single mom with two jobs trying to make ends meet? Gar Alperovitz argues that, in reality, the wealthy live off luck, not skill. As Bruce Bartlett, a former conservative,  notes, “Only 61.8 percent of national income went to compensation of employees in 2012, compared with 65.1 percent in 2001.” Middle- and lower-class blue-collar workers are actually  creating more, but getting less. While productivity  has steadily increased by a total of 85 percent between 1979 and 2012, the inflation adjusted wage of the median worker rose by a paltry 6 percent and the value of the federal minimum wage fell by 21 percent. Richard Branson  has said, “Yes, entrepreneurs may work hard, but I don’t think they actually work any harder than, say, doctors, nurses or other people in society …” The idea the right promotes is that poor people are lazy, rather than smart, hardworking people who never get a fair shake. Worse, they say that they are “dependent” on government, when it’s really the rich and their cronies who  rely on public financing. The middle class that decries poor “welfare queens” is more and more  reliant on government largess. Gore Vidal observed that the American free market system is “capitalism for the poor and socialism for the rich.”