ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT
Just four days after an election routinely interpreted as disapproval of President Barack Obama and his policies, national headlines blared yet another report of robust job growth, and by at least one measure, the best in 20 years.
The Associated Press reported that job growth in the United States has reached a level of consistency not seen in almost two decades. While voters indicated their discontent with the U.S. economy, employers have added at least 200,000 jobs for nine straight months, which is the longest such stretch since 1995.
There’s an old truism to the effect that a recession is when your neighbors lose their jobs and a depression is when YOU lose YOUR job. Here’s a corollary: A recovery is when your affluent neighbors and the stock market are doing better, but prosperity doesn’t arrive until YOU and most families in the vast middle-class are actually doing better.
The same AP report verified that the profits and growth from our global capitalistic system still are not being shared by those in the middle of the economic hierarchy. According to the AP, average hourly pay for American workers increased just slightly last month, with stagnant wages a chronic weakness in the otherwise strong job market since the end of the recession.
Alternative headline for this story: “Economy improving, except for most actual workers, as usual.”
Stagnant wages have been a problem for 35 years in the U.S. economy. It is the main destabilizing ingredient — along with phenomenal gains and profits for CEOs and shareholders at the very top of the economy — in our global, national and state inequality crisis.
Voters keep changing their minds about who is most likely to end this intractably widening inequality and whether conservatives or progressives might stimulate a broader prosperity. It should be pointed out that when a larger number of voters show up and attention on big-picture economic policy is more focused, the more progressive candidate has typically prevailed over the last 20 years. The more progressive candidate has won the national popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, and the electoral vote in four of six.
But at some point the left-behinds — the 60 percent with annual incomes between $20,000 and $105,000, and the bottom 20 percent, who are disproportionately people of color — will become discouraged and pessimistic and won’t show up to vote, or will turn against those who are trying to advance their interests.
And sure enough, exit polls and results showed that the 2014 electorate, which in midterm elections tends to be whiter, older, wealthier and more conservative than the general population, was even more so. In every state, including Minnesota, turnout plummeted to near-record lows.
The bottom line is that global capitalism is failing to deliver anything close to equal returns on profits and productivity for all the workers in the system, and ironically, leaders of governments who are trying their best to promote equity are getting blamed and punished. President Obama, for instance, had been relentlessly emphasizing his efforts in behalf of the distressed middle-income worker since the beginning of the year, including an event early last summer in Minneapolis in which he had lunch at a burger joint with a working mom.
Conservative leaders since Obama’s inauguration have hit on a temporarily successful strategy, especially for mid-terms: obstruct minimum wage increases, infrastructure investment, tuition relief and every other measure that might provide economic equity, then blame government and progressives for the ever-widening inequality.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman said it best the day after the Senate flipped, declaring that “obstructionism bordering on sabotage is a winning political strategy. From Day One of the Obama administration, [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell and his colleagues have done everything they could to undermine effective policy, in particular blocking every effort to do the obvious thing — boost infrastructure spending — in a time of low interest rates and high unemployment.”
As Krugman and many others have pointed out, the obstruction damaged the American middle-class but was politically astute. Most voters don’t carefully analyze the impact of policy and the legislative process on their own economic condition. They just know that they are falling well short of any semblance of prosperity, and the man in the White House and his political party are not delivering the goods.
Interestingly, in some states that elected conservative opponents of the minimum wage increase — Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota — voters on separate ballot measures overwhelmingly approved minimum wage increases.
In Minnesota, where a governor and a Legislature increased the minimum wage and increased taxes on top incomes, the results were mixed. Gov. Mark Dayton was comfortably re-elected and so was U.S. Sen. Al Franken, a fellow DFLer who strongly supports economic equity policies and who was accused of voting with President Obama 97 percent of the time. All five statewide offices were swept by the DFL candidates.
The Minnesota House changed control from DFL to Republican, but interestingly, conservatives leveraged geographic economic inequality issues to drive that outcome. GOP candidates won big in rural Minnesota, not by focusing on their opposition to the minimum wage and their opposition to taxing the rich, but with claims that Twin Cities progressives were leaving relatively less well-off rural voters behind.
Among those who found economic inequality to be the driving force in 2014 was columnist Cynthia Tucker, a Pulitzer Prize winner, who cited polls showing that the broad dissatisfaction in the nation centers on the state of the economy, which lacks a broad prosperity that reaches average Americans.
Tucker warned that a broken political system, obstructionism by conservatives, and a broadly shared failure of imagination to come up with equity policy for a post-industrial world will be a huge problem in coming years, especially in an increasingly diverse nation.
“The one thing that binds us, that has kept the country more or less united,” Tucker wrote, “is the promise of a broad and shared prosperity. If we can’t solve the problem of growing income inequality and restore the foundation for the middle class, the ties that bind us together will grow more frayed. Eventually, they’ll break.”