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The GOP candidates largely agree on what ails the country

Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Sen. Rick Santorum, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) are seen during a debate held at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla. Commentator Robert Reich says these presidential hopefuls are missing the point when it comes to what ails the U.S.

Kai Ryssdal: At the very least, Rick Santorum's strong showing last night in the various GOP primaries and caucuses livens that race up a bit.

Commentator Robert Reich says the remaining candidates generally agree on what ails the country. They just miss the cause.


Robert Reich: One of the few things the Republican presidential candidates agree on is that President Obama is turning America into what they call a "European-style welfare culture."

In his standard stump speech, Mitt Romney charges Obama with replacing our merit-based society with an "entitlement society." Yesterday's big winner Rick Santorum says, "There's a push to get more and more people dependent." Newt Gingrich calls Obama the best food-stamp president in American history.

Government data do show direct payments to individuals shot up by almost 32 percent since the start of 2009, and almost half of Americans now live in homes where at least one person is collecting a federal benefit -- such as Social Security, food stamps, or unemployment insurance.

The GOP candidates argue our economic problems stem from this sharp rise in what they see as dependency on government. But they have cause and effect backwards. The reason for the rise in these federal benefits is Americans got clobbered in 2008 with the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. Many are still in it. They and their families have needed whatever helping hands are available.

That's why the percentage of Americans falling into poverty has grown dramatically over the past three years.

January's increase in hiring is good news, but it masks the continuing downward mobility of much of the middle class.

Most of the new jobs being created are in the lower-wage sectors of the economy -- hospital orderlies, nursing aides, secretaries and retail clerks, hotel and restaurant workers. Millions of other Americans remain working in their old jobs only because they've agreed to cuts in wages and benefits. And millions of others have become temps or contract workers.

If anything, America's safety nets have been too small and shot through with holes. Only 40 percent of the unemployed qualify for unemployment benefits.

We haven't entered an entitlement society. Too many Americans have entered a downwardly-mobile society.


Ryssdal: Robert Reich teaches public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is called, "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future." Let us know what you think -- write to us.

About the author

Robert Reich is chancellor's professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.
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What's sorely lacking and depressing about the debate over the economy is how the entire direction of the strongest country on Earth is reduced to "jobs jobs jobs." Nowhere on the radar do I see anyone speak of the dignity of labor, the relation of labor to capital, the possibility to integrate meaningful work into a larger vision of community, of what sort of society we want to build.

Mr. Reisch has got it right. And it will not get better until the political power and influence of the wealthy (who have spent years crafting the laws and regulations to favor them, in the form of tax cuts, estate tax reduction, tax treatment of capital gains, even government subsidies) has been pulled back more in line with that of the so-called 99%. Over time, the wealthy have stacked the deck against everyone else, and that's why so many more are in need of the so-called safety net. (Which, of course, the GOP wants to eliminate.)

I think your actually talking about the artificially overpaid 40%: You know: teachers, police officers, "Registered" Nurses, firefighters and most government workers. Yes, if your company only works government projects, your part of the problem...mandated bloated pay. My favorite example is a sign at the local library that said: "Hey, Teens 14-17. Do you want to make $12 an hour to start stocking shelves part time? Apply now." And the minimum wage is somewhere around $9. We have become a country where the people who do actual "hard" work are paid little and those professions that have waiting lists are paid more. It makes no economic sense to pay someone $40 an hour who is unwilling to actually "work." Especially if they are "service" jobs. There was a time when the aforementioned professions were low-paying enough to where the people working them were not paid enough to finance luxury automobiles...they did it because they "cared" about other people. Now, it's "I'm better than everyone else because I got lucky and they didn't...If you don't pay me what I want, I'll stomp my fat feet and terrorize you until you do." Really wealthy people are not the problem...It's people who can only steal from others- yes, if your unproductive and make $40,000 to $80,000 a year and essentially would never find another or even be able to0 do another job if you lost your current one, your essentially nothing but a legal criminal. You know, the person whose unproductive and when tested on their productivity or knowledge-base are the first ones to get all red in the face and scream "But, I've been here for X many years!!! At which point you reply "So, that's why everything is so f-----." The real tragedy is that deep down, many of these people know it. It is the ones who are at least honest that I respect. The liars who go: "I could make so much more but I chose this because I love it" are the people I really worry about...these types have no shame and will throw anyone under a bus!!!

I think your actually talking about the artificially overpaid 40%: You know: teachers, police officers, "Registered" Nurses, firefighters and most government workers. Yes, if your company only works government projects, your part of the problem...mandated bloated pay. My favorite example is a sign at the local library that said: "Hey, Teens 14-17. Do you want to make $12 an hour to start stocking shelves part time? Apply now." And the minimum wage is somewhere around $9. We have become a country where the people who do actual "hard" work are paid little and those professions that have waiting lists are paid more. It makes no economic sense to pay someone $40 an hour who is unwilling to actually "work." Especially if they are "service" jobs. There was a time when the aforementioned professions were low-paying enough to where the people working them were not paid enough to finance luxury automobiles...they did it because they "cared" about other people. Now, it's "I'm better than everyone else because I got lucky and they didn't...If you don't pay me what I want, I'll stomp my fat feet and terrorize you until you do." Really wealthy people are not the problem...It's people who can only steal from others- yes, if your unproductive and make $40,000 to $80,000 a year and essentially would never find another or even be able to0 do another job if you lost your current one, your essentially nothing but a legal criminal. You know, the person whose unproductive and when tested on their productivity or knowledge-base are the first ones to get all red in the face and scream "But, I've been here for X many years!!! At which point you reply "So, that's why everything is so f-----." The real tragedy is that deep down, many of these people know it. It is the ones who are at least honest that I respect. The liars who go: "I could make so much more but I chose this because I love it" are the people I really worry about...these types have no shame and will throw anyone under a bus!!!

Mr. Reich got cause and effect all backwards.

No reasonable Republican would ever suggest that the current economic woes in our country are caused by an over-dependence upon government aid. Of course we are addicted to government aid because of a poor economy. And the front-running candidates have all said as much.

What the Republicans are saying is that the current Administration is not interested in getting people off of the government aid by creating jobs. Instead, the Administration has figured out that the statistic Mr. Reich references is true: if half of the families in the country are dependent upon the government for aid, the Administration can buy election results by (1) increasing the size of the government checks, (2) increasing the number of people receiving government checks, and (3) accusing the other party of wanting to cut off the government checks.

As large as the increase in food stamp, Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid programs has been in recent years, it will pale in comparison to the increase in government dependency when the "Affordable Care Act" finally goes into effect. When it is more attractive and more reliable to live off of the government than to find a job, we will be headed towards the European style entitlement system. And it's easy to see how that's working out in Greece, Italy, and the rest of the Eurozone.

What Republicans really want to do is to get the American economy going again so that there are actual jobs out there for Americans. If there are jobs, then safety net programs do what they are supposed to do - providing emergency funding for those who have lost their jobs - instead of what they are doing now, which is providing emergency votes for politicians who have lost their credibility.

The course the Administration supports is increasing taxes on the rich to pay for the increasing size of these entitlements. The course the Republicans support is decreasing taxes on everyone to provide capital for companies to create jobs.

The course the Administration supports is increasing the size of entitlement programs to increase dependency upon the government. The course the Republicans support is decreasing the size of these programs by getting people good paying jobs with benefits that will support their families.

The course the Administration supports will lead us towards increasing entitlement spending, increasing deficits, and increasing economic gaps between those who depend upon the government's minimum payments and those who work for the maximum payment the private sector offers. The course the Republicans support will lead us towards decreasing entitlement spending, decreasing deficits, and decreasing gaps between rich and poor as we all prosper together.

The recent imposition of austerity measures in the Eurozone should be warning enough that we need to decrease the size of entitlements in America. The best way to do that is to get Americans back to work by providing economic incentives for those with the money to create jobs to create as many jobs as possible. When there's more jobs, there's less dependency upon the government for paychecks, for benefits, and for services. That's the cause and effect we need.

Totally wrong. The Affordable Care Act will encourage Americans to stop looking for work? Get real. It will prevent insurance companies from cutting your insurance when you get sick or astronomically increasing rates, which is the same as cutting it off. Profit motive has no place in health care. Obamacare didn't go nearly far enough and needs to be replaced with the public option. Right wing zealots like HoustonHokie can still keep their private plan with the huge army of secretaries and billing clerks suporting 1 doctor and several nurses in every office. If you can keep your corrupt, bloated private system, why does a public option scare you so? "Republican course will decrease the gap between rich and poor, lift all boats?" Give it a break. Nobody believes you, including you who espouse it. Eventually, the masses will also understand that they needn't give billionaires another few million $ in tax breaks so that a few pennies trickles down. Job creation was best during the Clinton years before the Bush tax cuts. Unregulated mortgage origination and Wall Str. were the biggest job killers ever known. "Get the economy going again" "We billionnaires love creating jobs." Who do you think you're fooling? Even the uneducated masses understand that Business 101 says "employ as few people as you possibly can". "Job creators" - good one!

Reich is correct that most politicians get the "cause and effect" wrong. But so did he. The single most important cause of the Great Recession is that we have exported jobs for several decades. It finally became too much.

And please, when - for G-d's sake, when, will the Dems finally have a response to "Repeal Dodd-Frank, Durbin Amendment", 'Sarbannes-Oxley"etc.? As stupid as the masses are, even they understand that lack of and ineffective regulation of banks was key to allowing the financial crisis to happen. Public memory is very short, but even the masses understand that the right wing is asking to go back to pre-2008, as though we learned no lessons from the experience. Capitalism harnesses greed and works well under fair competition, not rigged markets which stifle it. The masses will understand that "self-regulation" is a lie if you explain it to them. Greed hath no limit, and the excesses need to be constrained and monitored. The banking sector is more concentrated than pre-2008 with the big 4 being far too big and sytemically critical to fail than before.

Putting the cart before the horse has become such a common rhetorical tactic, it is really beginning to wear thin (along with table-turning; i.e., S.S. is a Ponzi scheme, for instance, versus the Wall Street securitization process; or “class warfare” as a Democratic rather than Republican initiative). Strip away all the political bantering and the left and right have much to agree on. Republicans have been criticized for opposing anything and everything Obama proposes as a political tactic, but the same is now true of Democrats, who want to support anything and everything Obama has proposed, even though it may put Democrats on the defensive and represent a concession to conservatives in the long run. (January’s jobs report being the most recent example.) To Robert Reich’s point: Just what sort of jobs are we talking about? And no, we’re not even close to emulating Europe. If only that were true, and without the loan-sharking cum austerity crisis. The main disagreement, I think, comes down to issues of motivation, government waste, and semantics. Conservatives want to reduce or eliminate social welfare; progressives want to reduce or eliminate corporate welfare and the power of corporations to circumvent democracy. If corporations and financiers weren’t working to the detriment of the interests of American workers and consumers, however, there would be a lighter burden on all Americans as taxpayers. And what about the motivation of businesses to hire—at a living wage? It’s not just that the public sector needs to be protected or expanded; it needs to be put to good use competing with and checking private industry while also putting Americans to productive work. Everyone seems to agree on eliminating financial bailouts and legislation that amounts to taxpayer-financed capitalism (that is NOT socialism; that is failed neoliberal economics on steroids). So, why don’t we start there, with the restoration of Glass-Steagall? Enough with the myth of trickle down and “America the meritocracy”; we are rapidly becoming an oligarchy. Private industry caused this financial crisis, not public industry, and yet the clamoring continues for more of the same (deregulation and privatization). Ironically, more productive public investment would reduce costs, increase wages, decrease our tax burden in the long run, and create the sort of economy that a laissez-faire model is supposed to create but, in fact, does not. And 2008 is the proof of it.

4th paragraph - 'Cause and effect backward' - dead-on totally correct. I've been saying this a long time, glad to read someone else understands it. Only, why don't the Dems make that case? They need to counter the right wing talking points head on, with convincing rationale the population will understand, a Dr. Reich did. They better have an answer (which is exceedingly obvious but never verbalized once yet) to "X% of Americans pay no taxes. The upper Y% pay Z% of taxes". Answer: OF COURSE - due to Gatsby-ish extreme wealth gap expansion, the masses' wages keep getting pushed lower and lower. The X% would LOVE to earn enough to pay taxes, but they can't. And the Y% pay Z% because of the tax because they control Z+% of the wealth, earn Z++% of the income. So those taxpaying % are right, it's the cause and effect which is distorted, painted by the right wing, and has a powerful effect on the masses. And not one single counter-argument yet. Which is why the Dems will get trounced again this November, sadly.

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