Mark Shields: They’re just too rich for my taste

By Mark Shields

”Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration.”

Any semi-plausible 2016 White House candidate knows it would be the kiss of fundraising death to be caught on YouTube uttering such subversively un-American, anti-business sentiments. If you want to understand just how far to the right our politics have moved, you only have to know that the opening lines above are a direct quotation from the first annual message to Congress by our nation’s first and greatest Republican president, Abraham Lincoln.

What brought Honest Abe to mind was the Federal Reserve’s recent release of its Survey of Consumer Finances, done every three years, which confirmed conclusively what you probably already knew: The rich are getting ever richer, while everybody else is losing ground. Between 2010 and 2013 (remember that the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009), the median income for all American families, which has dropped every year since 2006, fell another $2,300, down to $46,700 a year. The only Americans whose incomes did not shrink between 2010 and 2013 were the richest 10 percent.

To me, the most disheartening numbers deal with the growing concentration of the national wealth among the economic elite. The richest 3 percent of Americans controlled 44.8 percent of U.S. wealth in 1989 (right after the second term of Republican Ronald Reagan), which increased to 51.8 percent in 2007 (in the second term of Republican George W. Bush). In 2013, in Democrat Barack Obama’s second term, the wealth share of the top 3 percent had swollen to 54.4 percent.

Conversely, the share of the nation’s wealth belonging to the bottom 90 percent of Americans fell from a third during the Reagan years to less than a quarter. To make the point even more painfully, the nation’s minimum wage, in constant dollars, was worth more — $5.06 an hour — in 1984 (Reagan again) than it was last year, down to only $4.87 an hour.

The evidence is clear. The United States is more and more unequal. Recall the criteria offered by the only American ever elected to the White House four times. A great Democratic leader, Franklin D. Roosevelt told us in his second inaugural address: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

By every human measurement, we have ignored Lincoln by deferring to and all but genuflecting before almighty capital while treating labor with indifference bordering on contempt. Year after year, as more is added to the record abundance of those who already have too much — and everyone else falls further behind — we fail FDR’s test.

At one time, we honored these two men — Lincoln and Roosevelt — enough to build in our nation’s capital two inspiring memorials to their leadership and their values. Is it not time we answered their summons and met their challenge to build a more human and humane American economy?