Froma Harrop: How not to get your country back
By Froma Harrop
The tea party mantra, “I want my country back,” resonates with many. The racial undertones can be ugly (as well as pointless). But the longing for an economically secure America centered on a strong middle class is on point and widely shared.
Older and mostly white members of the far right tend to see themselves as model Americans who worked hard, saved up and played by the rules. They may have done all the above, but many also have no idea of how easy they had it.
After World War II, Americans with no college could walk into a factory and obtain a job paying middle-class wages. Global competition was a future threat. Today’s retirees are among the last Americans to enjoy the most golden of benefits, including a defined pension check, guaranteed for the rest of their lives.
More troubling than the tunnel vision, though, is the right’s program for restoring the country it purports to miss. The ideological obsession with slashing taxes, shrinking government and keeping labor as cheap as possible is downright destructive.
The America of yore did not build its middle class that way.
When President Dwight Eisenhower backed the construction of the interstate highway system in 1956, the top marginal rate for individual income taxes was 91 percent. Older taxpayers bore their burdens more or less stoically (and there wasn’t Medicare to pay their parents’ doctor bills). Building America was the public-spirited thing to do.
Fast-forward to the economic crash of 2008. The infrastructure was in shambles and unemployment high. Robust stimulus spending was the ticket out of both dilemmas. But even though the top marginal rate was only 35 percent, fringe conservatives controlling the Republican Party fought against government intervention every inch of the way — lest Congress raise taxes one dime.
Kansas has become the patient on which to conduct this experiment at its most extreme, and the results are disastrous. Gov. Sam Brownback pushed through wild tax cuts, mainly benefiting the well-to-do, while placing Kansas classrooms, libraries and other public services on a starvation diet.
And what do Kansans have to show for it? The tax cuts drained their state of $300 million in expected revenues for the recent fiscal year. (Where’s that explosion of economic activity that the theorists said would make up the difference?) Meanwhile, earnings are falling faster and jobs growing more slowly than the national average.
The bond rating agencies remain unimpressed. Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s have lowered Kansas’ credit rating, making it more expensive for the state to borrow.
Study after economic study shows the 21st-century spoils going to the educated. And here we have Kansas cannibalizing its schools just as competing states are restoring their education spending.
One wishes older conservatives opposed to raising the minimum wage, now $7.25 an hour, took an honest look at the wages government guaranteed them back when. The minimum wage in 1968 was the equivalent of $10.90 in today’s dollars.
A new study of the 20 major economies finds the U.S. minimum wage among the lowest relative to the country’s average wage. China, Brazil and Turkey did better.
The minimum wage helps less skilled workers but also influences the pay levels higher up the scale. Putting more money in the pockets of those likeliest to spend it fuels economic demand.
Tax policy does matter, and there is such a thing as government waste. But in the end, a middle class is nurtured on good schools, roads and other public services. They cost money.
Americans who want their middle-class country back should follow their elders’ example. A little gratitude would be nice, too.