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What Liberals are Still Missing About Inequality: Decades of Outsourcing and Union-Busting by the 1%

Many of America’s most liberal mainstream pundits have narrowed the debate over inequality, perhaps out of a desire to shield Obama from pressure coming from his left.

The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive  In These Times weekly updates.

 The Occupy movement forcefully injected a long-taboo topic—America’s appalling  “banana republic”-level economic disparities—into the mainstream political debate.

That inequality has immense implications, from falling wages, to deteriorating healthcare coverage, the overgrown financial sector, and the decline of America's productive base. Such sweeping inequality, deeply rooted in our economic and political system of legal payoffs and policy paybacks, has been intensified by unionbusting and globalization.

But even many of America’s most liberal mainstream politicians and pundits have narrowed the debate over inequality, perhaps out of a desire to shield President Obama from any pressure coming from his left. The issue of tax inequities has soared in importance, exposing the privileged status enjoyed by CEOs and hedge fund and private equity executives like Mitt Romney. But other crucial dimensions of inequality painfully experienced by ordinary Americans have been crowded out.

For example, the liberal and likable Lawrence O’Donnell, host of MSNBC’s  The Last Word, declares in a TV ad that all the talk about “class war” amounts to a battle over a proposed 4 percent increase in tax rates for the super-rich. Really, Lawrence?

The richest 1 percent did not triple their share of the nation’s income during the last three decades—to the current 24 percent—simply through the tax system alone. Nor did the tax system allow the wealthiest 1 percent to capture nearly 9/10 of productivity gains in recent years,  representing a $3 billion upward shift in income.

American media employ a disproportionately large share of pundits who either deny or defend the riches accruing to America’s "job creators”—ranging from the outraged George Will to the sly discounting of the problem by NPR’s Adam Davidson. They are accompanied by a chorus of leading voices—Thomas Friedman and Fareed Zakaria, to name just two, who gloss over the inequities caused by global corporate supremacy.

Even the supposedly liberal pundits—E.J. Dionne, Howard Fineman, Jonathan Alter, Ezra Klein and Richard Wolffe, among others—are remarkably confined in their discussions of inequality. They almost never refer to the 35-year campaign of  union-busting by Corporate America, in which 90 percent of union organizing drives are greeted with high-pressure resistance from management, according to Christopher Martin's 2003 book on media coverage of labor,  Framed! .        

The crucial fact that 31,358 workers get fired in a typical year while trying to unionize their workplace, according to author  Philip Dine, is almost uniformly omitted from liberal pundits' explanations of U.S. inequality. Only in their coverage of public-employee battles in Wisconsin did MSNBC hosts like Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz discuss union-busting and its role in pushing down wages and eliminating workers’ voice on the job.

The other central weapon in the class war against workers—the threat or actual relocation of production to brutal low-wage conditions found in Mexico and China—has been almost entirely absent from the comments of MSNBC hosts and guests.

John R. MacArthur, publisher of  Harper's and author of the superb 2000 book on NAFTA,  The Selling of Free Trade, believes that too many liberal and progressive commentators and pundits have been afraid of criticizing President Obama on a fundamental issue of loyalty to working-class interests. “The so-called liberal media and even its leftish fringe are almost all in the bag for Obama,” said MacArthur, whose book extensively  details the almost-unanimous endorsement of NAFTA by the US press corps in 1992 and 1993.