Have Progressives Abandoned Economic Liberalism?

America continues to experience exploding inequality that threatens both our democracy and the very fabric of our society, without much attention from the mainstream media.

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In this 2010 photo, a foreclosed house is shown in Lee County, Florida. Working American families continue to struggle, but without sufficient media coverage to document it. (AP/Chris O'Meara)
In this 2010 photo, a foreclosed house is shown in Lee County, Florida. Working American families continue to struggle, but without sufficient media coverage to document it. (AP/Chris O'Meara)

In a recent, much-discussed article in Slate titled “What’s Left?” Barry Friedman and Dahlia Lithwick asked, “Have progressives abandoned every cause save gay marriage?”

The question was obviously overstated—perhaps on purpose—to provoke. The short answer is of course not. At the moment the article’s authors were asking this question, millions of progressives were cheering Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis’s (D) amazing filibuster in support of a woman’s right to choose and arguing extensively over both the administration’s new climate change proposal, as well as its decision to charge Edward Snowden with espionage. But if we look at the question more generally, they have a point that might have been better stated: Have progressives abandoned economic liberalism in favor of an exclusive focus on social liberalism?

Occupy Wall Street has come and gone, and while the movement did succeed in focusing the attention of many in the mainstream media on the growing gap between the “1 percent” and the rest of us—no small accomplishment, given reporters’ romance with the wealthiest among us—America continues to experience exploding inequality that threatens both our democracy and the basic structure of our society, a problem largely ignored by the mainstream media.

You probably did not notice, for instance, much coverage of the Economic Policy Institute’s new report informing us that between 1978 and 2011, “CEO compensation grew more than 725 percent, substantially more than the stock market and remarkably more than the annual compensation of a typical private-sector worker, which grew a meager 5.7 percent.” Average CEO pay for a Fortune 500 company now stands at 231 times greater than the average worker’s pay—compared to a roughly 20-1 ratio in 1965. And I see from The New York Times business pages that Oracle’s Larry Ellison was the highest-paid CEO in 2012, taking home $96.2 million in total pay last year.

What’s more, so-called golden parachutes continue to escalate in value. According to The Times:

In 2012, the biggest [severance] package [among CEOs] went to James J. Mulva, who stepped down as C.E.O. of ConocoPhillips after 10 years, according to an analysis by Equilar of the 10 largest exit packages. His total: about $156 million. As with all C.E.O.’s on the list, his exit sum is on top of salary, bonus and other compensation received while working for the company.

These packages merely distribute wealth from the company’s workers and stockholders to its top executives.

Concerned, no doubt, about voters’ potential reaction to these trends, conservatives have been investing a fortune into post-Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission super PACs, but they have also been funding scholarly studies that attempt to demonstrate that economic inequality is no big deal. Or, even better, that it is not happening at all.

One of the most respected economists dedicating himself to this task is Richard V. Burkhauser, a professor of public policy at Cornell University and an adjunct scholar at the increasingly far-right American Enterprise Institute. Together with co-authors Jeff Larrimore and Philip Armour, Burkhauser argues that over the past 18 years, the poor and middle classes have actually done better economically than the rich on a percentage basis. According to journalist Thomas Edsall, Burkhauser does this by including the pricing of health care, including Medicare and Medicaid, and through:

… attempts to measure the year-to-year increase in taxpayers’ assets—stocks and bonds, housing and privately held businesses—and to count those annual increases as income. Increases in the value of such assets do not show up in tax data because they are taxed by the federal government only when the asset in question is sold and the increased value is realized as taxable gains.

But as James Wetzler, the former chief economist of Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation, explains, the increases in health care payments are immediately siphoned off by the medical industry and are never seen by those who are alleged to benefit from them. As for the “year-to-year increase in taxpayers’ assets—stocks and bonds, housing and privately held businesses,” these are also invisible to the people who Burkhauser and company would imagine to be celebrating. Homeowners, for example, do not enjoy any benefit from the increased value of their house until they sell it. But from September 2008 to October 2012, an estimated 3.9 million Americans lost their homes to foreclosures. These were homes with a median market value of $242,400—right smack in the middle of average America.

In May the St. Louis Federal Reserve reported that U.S. households had only regained less than half of what they lost after the recession. But according to the calculations of Burkhauser and his co-authors, both of these groups—those who lost their houses and those whose higher health care bills are paid directly to their providers—actually improved their economic status before the inconvenient fact of losing their houses or having their incomes intervened. Nonetheless, according to the Pew Research Center, between 2009 and 2011, “the wealthiest seven percent of the nation saw the mean value of their assets grow by 28 percent, to $3.17 million from $2.48 million, while the bottom 93 percent saw their net worth drop by 4 percent, to $133,816 from $139,896.”

Alas, according to a new Gallup survey, a significant majority of Americans get their news from television, where such statistics are generally ignored in favor of tabloid stories, political food fights, and, if they watch Fox News, right-wing misinformation. But when PBS Frontline broadcasted a special Bill Moyers report last Friday titled “Surviving the New Economy,” it was remarkable in many respects—whether one looks at the long-term focus it put on its subjects, at the manner in which it humanizes economic arguments and often dry-sounding statistics, or at the unvarnished voices and honest emotion it exposes.

The research for the program was undertaken over a 22-year period. In 1990 Moyers and his producers began examining the effects of the changing U.S. economy on two ordinary families in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The most recent program was the fourth show he has done about them. The Stanley and Neumann families first appeared in “Minimum Wages: The New Economy” in 1990. Moyers revisited them in 1995 in “Living on the Edge” and in 2000 in “Surviving the Good Times.” Each report has demonstrated just how brutal the changes in the economy—which have so enriched CEOs, bond holders, traders, and bankers—have had on regular people who rarely make the news. These were people who used to be able to depend on decent-paying factory jobs with medical and retirement benefits, but they have largely been abandoned not only by the political class that has little use for them but also by the media, which shows next to no interest in such unremarkable lives.

If you take some time to watch the show, you will see the kind of faces and hear the kind of talk that is rarely seen or heard on TV. One cannot do justice to their voices in a transcript, so I urge readers to view the program themselves. What is most frustrating about listening to their stories is the fact that they are exactly the kind of people about whom politicians always speak in the abstract. Moyers describes them as “families my mother, rest her soul, would have called ‘the salt of the earth … hard workers … caring parents … faithful church-goers … trying to secure a foothold in the middle class.” They are instead working for minimum wage and unable to keep up with their mortgages and medical payments—much less pay to send their children to college so they can live out what they have been told is the American Dream.

Moyers’s program is not a horror show. But it is more of a nightmare than a dream. And it is one that none of us has a right to ignore, especially progressives.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, recently released in paperback.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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