It’s time to play the inequality card

Marketplace Staff Oct 4, 2006

BOB MOON: The midterm Congressional elections are now a month away. And newspapers are stuffed with analysis of political strategy. The head of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors recently touched upon a point that just could become a campaign issue:

Edward Lazear said there’s little doubt the wage gap between the skilled and unskilled has been growing over the last 25 years. Question is, do Americans feel so strongly about inequality that it can be a winning issue for Democrats?

Marketplace Commentator Bob Reich says it’s high time to play the inequality card.

ROBERT REICH: There’s a debate brewing in the Democratic Party about whether to talk about the nation’s widening inequality. Some Democratic strategists say that’s too risky. Most of America’s vast middle class wants and expects to be rich someday themselves. Talk about widening inequality and you risk sounding too negative.

Well, I think that conventional wisdom is wrong. In September’s Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, inequality ranked as the second-most-important economic issue, right after the cost of gas and energy.

A few months ago when Congress was debating whether to raise the minimum wage, polls showed 85 percent of the public in favor. And about 80 percent of Americans polled by the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg said CEOs are overpaid.

Remember what happened last year when Congress debated the Central American Free Trade Act? Despite a heavy lobbying blitz from the White House and from business, it squeaked by with a margin of just two votes in the House. Polls showed most Americans no longer favor of free trade because they think it’s hurting the wages of average working people.

The fact is, we haven’t experienced inequality on this scale since the 1920s — by some measures since the age of the Robber Barons in the 1890s.

The American economy has been growing nicely. Corporate profits are up. Top executives are raking in eight-digit compensation packages. But the paychecks of most people have not budged. Median household earnings are actually below what they were in 1999. Meanwhile, the costs of energy, health insurance and college tuitions are skyrocketing.

So don’t be surprised if you hear lots of Democratic candidates and maybe even a few Republicans talk about restoring fairness to the economy. That means rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, raising the minimum wage, lifting the ceiling on earnings subject to Social Security payroll taxes, and cutting taxes on the middle class. The new political motto: It’s fairness, stupid.

MOON: Robert Reich teaches public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

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