Friday, November 11, 2011

Defining Mobility Down: The New Republican Economy

In 1993, New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote an essay entitled "Defining deviancy down” in The American Spectator (vol. 62, no. 1, winter 1993, pp. 17-30). The subtitle was “How We’ve Become Accustomed to Alarming Levels of Crime and Destructive Behavior.” In other words, with an increase in violent behavior, society began accepting some crimes as normal, while only the most shocking crimes caught our attention.

In 2011, we've allowed the Republican party to define mobility down by accepting the idea that there's nothing government should do to help people in economic need, and to actually blame the unemployed and poor for their condition. In other words, with an increase in poverty and the loss of middle class purchasing power, middle and working class Americans must sacrifice their savings, pensions, medical insurance and children's futures so that the wealthy can continue to have their lifestyles protected. Mobility must be sacrificed at the altar of lower taxes on the rich and unbridled competitive capitalism.

This lie is usually repeated whenever the GOP wants to cut a social program or force workers, unionized or  otherwise, to pay more because not doing so would mean that millionaires might have to pay more. Shared sacrifice is fine for the 99%, but not for the top earners. And so far they've used the argument that because private sector workers don't have what public workers have, public workers must give up their gains.

This translates into a destructive line of illogic: Since private sector workers have to pay more for less insurance, are at risk for losing their pensions when the stock market tanks (if they have a pension), and have to take wage freezes and cuts, all middle class workers should suffer and sacrifice. Meanwhile, the wealthy have seen their incomes grow upward of 400% over the past 30 years.

The right wants this line of thought to be the new normal. It's a shocking turn of events and exactly the opposite from what made the United States great in the post-World War II era. What's worse, the media has repeated the new definition of mobility so many times, it's become an accepted idea.

The Progressive goal for this election cycle has to be to restore economic sanity to the debate. Instead of lumping all middle class workers into a subgroup that needs to sacrifice, we need to find ways to lift all workers so they have decent, affordable health insurance, livable wages and acceptable working conditions. Voters in Ohio struck the first blow by repealing the law that cut public worker collective bargaining rights. Occupy Wall Street has begun to slowly change the terms of debate by focusing on the obscene inequality between the wealthy and middle class wage earners. Even Republicans are now cautiously discussing raising revenue through changes in the tax system.

But that's not enough. We need to hammer home the point that the 2009 stimulus law raised economic growth and employment when it was in effect. As soon as the money stopped, the economy slowed. Cutting wages and benefits have made things worse by taking money out of the economy when the responsible policy would be even greater stimulus. It's outrageous to hear pro-business Republicans talk about investing in the stock market, but arguing against investing public money in industries that the private sector won't touch.

Social and economic mobility is the lifeblood of this country. Let not allow the right wing to tell us all how much we can't do.

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  1. Your comments are the essence of progressive thought on government in my view. I believe the debate needs to focus as much on specifics as generalization. It is the anecdotal evidence the right uses to refute the undeniable truths of the progressive cause. So while we can all agree with progressives that a clean environment is a good a desirable thing the right throws out some small businessman who claims he can't provide his workers with health insurance because regulation makes it too expensive ergo we can't have clean air and water because it costs jobs. Okay I know that argument is silly, illogical baloney but it's just the sort of debate tactic the right uses. So I feel the need to try to refocus the argument to the specific harms avoided by regulation of polluting industry including health care benefits (which unfortunately will only make the insurance industry more money). Keep writing my friend.

  2. Thanks Tom. I agree that we need to focus more on the specific the specific benefits of responsible government. We've allowed the right wing to guide the discussion to things we can't have, and for all the wrong reasons.

  3. Sadly, in many ways our economy/society is becoming a race to the bottom (e.g., my benefits/salary are worse than yours, so yours should come down, too!). Misery loves company? And that's extending to moral issues as well.