News & Politics

It's the (Tanking) Economy, Stupid

Conservatives say struggling Americans are just too dumb to grasp the wonders of our 'knowledge-based economy.'
If the people don't like the economy, there must be something wrong with the people.

This is the new line from the Bush administration and its flacks: Growth is up! Unemployment is down! Incomes are soaring! So why, according to a poll taken by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, do 63 percent of Americans say that the economy is on the wrong track? Obviously they are deluded. Or maybe they're just not all that bright.

Weighing in on the side of delusion is New York Times columnist David Brooks, who wrote the following on Sept. 7:
... workers overall are not getting a smaller slice of the pie. Wages and benefits have made up roughly the same share of G.D.P. for 50 years ... Jobs are not more insecure. Workers are just as likely to hold a job for 20 years as they were in 1969 ... workers are not stuck in dead-end jobs.
And, in a statement that has economists scratching their heads: "The typical male worker with some college but no degree has seen his income rise from $34,000 in 2000 to about $40,000 today." (Who is this guy, and how do I find him?)

If the public is pessimistic, Brooks argues, it must be because "the populists, who usually live in university towns, paint a portrait of unrelieved misery that badly distorts reality." And the public, sated as it is by a steady diet of high-end restaurant meals and distracted by constant mall sprees, is dumb enough to believe those academic cranks.

Elaine Chao, the secretary of labor, tacitly endorses the intellectual defect theory, stating on CNN recently that "our economy is evolving and transitioning to a knowledge-based economy" that favors the highly educated and highly skilled. Translation: If you're not enjoying the economy, it must be because you're just not too smart. And if you're not smart enough for our knowledge-based economy, you're clearly too dumb to understand how great it really is.

Connoisseurs of American political ideologies will note the delicate bind the Pew survey puts the conservatives in. For years, they've styled themselves as the "populists" -- upholding the supposed simple virtues and gut patriotism of the common person against the cynicism and "moral relativity" of the overeducated, Chardonnay-swigging, stem-cell-hating "liberal elite." What to do then when the average Joe and Joan say the economy sucks? Brooks falls back on the liberal elite theory -- attributing public pessimism to the baleful influence of those who dwell in "university towns." Chao wants us to believe that the disgruntled are simply those who haven't yet grasped the wonders of a "knowledge-based economy."

But right-wing populism never applied to economics. While bravely championing chastity, fetuses and heterosexual marriage, the right has pursued an unabashedly elitist economic program: cutting taxes for the wealthy and services for everyone else. The effects of these policies -- along with private sector layoffs and cuts in wages and benefits -- are finally coming home to roost. Real wages are declining; in fact, the share of the GDP that goes to wages and salaries has reached a 59-year low, while the share going to corporate profits is at a 40-year high.

Meanwhile the number of Americans without health insurance rose by 1.3 million in 2005. And while the unemployment rate is admirably low, it fails to take into account the large numbers of people who have given up looking for work or who are working at low-paid jobs for which they may be far overqualified. Odd, isn't it, that in a "knowledge-based economy" so many college graduates are waiting tables and laid-off engineers are driving airport limos?

Here's another explanation for the economic disgruntlement of the American public: They're not dumb or deluded, they're hurting. Stagnant wages and salaries, combined with rising costs of health care, energy, tuition and rent, have left a majority -- somewhere around 63 percent -- battered and bruised. Real populists don't call the people dumb. They listen to what they're saying.
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of 13 books, most recently "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream." This piece originally appeared on Barbara's blog.
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