The real economic story – which Obama isn't telling
President Obama's acts feed the Republican narrative: blame big government for the economy. Why isn't Obama putting the blame where it belongs, on big business and Wall Street?
Quiz: What’s responsible for the lousy economy most Americans continue to wallow in?Skip to next paragraph
Robert is chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Clinton. Time Magazine named him one of the 10 most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including “The Work of Nations,” his latest best-seller “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future," and a new e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.
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A. Big government, bureaucrats, and the cultural and intellectual elites who back them.
B. Big business, Wall Street, and the powerful and privileged who represent them.
These are the two competing stories Americans are telling one another.
Yes, I know: It’s more complicated than this. In reality, the lousy economy is due to insufficient demand – the result of the nation’s almost unprecedented concentration of income at the top. The very rich don’t spend as much of their income as the middle. And since the housing bubble burst, the middle class hasn’t had the buying power to keep the economy going. That concentration of income, in turn, is due to globalization and technological change – along with unprecedented campaign contributions and lobbying designed to make the rich even richer and do nothing to help average Americans, insider trading, and political bribery.
So B is closer to the truth.
But A is the story Republicans and right-wingers tell. It’s a dangerous story because it deflects attention from the real problem and makes it harder for America to focus on the real solution – which is more widely shared prosperity. (I get into how we might do this in my new book, Aftershock.)
A is also the story President Obama is telling, indirectly, through his deficit commission, his freeze on federal pay, his freeze on discretionary spending, and his waivering on extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich.
Most other Washington Democrats are falling into the same trap.
If Obama and the Democrats were serious about story B they’d at least mention it. They’d tell the nation that income and wealth haven’t been this concentrated at the top since 1928, the year before the Great Crash. They’d be indignant about the secret money funneled into midterm campaigns. They’d demand Congress pass the Disclose Act so the public would know where the money comes from.
They’d introduce legislation to curb Wall Street bonuses – exactly what European leaders are doing with their financial firms. They’d demand that the big banks, now profitable after taxpayer bailouts, reorganize the mortgage debt of distressed homeowners. They’d call for a new WPA to put the unemployed back to work, and pay for it with a tax surcharge on incomes over $1 million.
They’d insist on extended unemployment benefits for long-term jobless who are now exhausting their benefits. And they’d hang tough on the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy – daring Republicans to vote against extending the cuts for everyone else.
But Obama is doing none of this. Instead, he’s telling story A.