THE REPUBLICAN PARTY OWES YOU $20,000….The Democratic Strategist has a roundtable discussion in its September issue that pretty neatly encapsulates my own inability to figure out what economic message will work for liberals. To start, the authors of the main article make an excellent point:

Part of the problem is that Democrats have been misled about the state of the middle class. Progressive economists typically peg median household income at about $45,000. But that includes households headed by 22-year olds (who are on their way up) and 76-year olds (who live on fixed incomes that may be small but are often comfortable since they have no dependents and limited work related expenses).

Among households headed by prime age Americans ? adults between the ages of 26 and 59 ? the median household income is about $63,000.

This is a badly underappreciated point: America is a very rich country. People still have economic worries, but the plain fact is that the vast majority of Americans are well enough off that their financial status is not the overwhelmingly most powerful fact of their lives. Like it or not, this means that for about 70-80% of the population, raw appeals to economic populism just don’t have much salience.

But here’s the problem: the two rebuttals that have been posted so far also make sense. John Halpin says: “The problem lies with a Democratic Party establishment that is unwilling or unable to call it like it is in a larger sense….explaining to Americans how the GOP-controlled system is rigged against the middle class on everything from taxation and social spending to corporate welfare and military service.”

Hear hear. And Elizabeth Warren writes: “Today, a fully-employed, median-earning male makes about $800 less than his counterpart made back in 1972. But costs for many of the basics ? housing, health insurance, transportation, college educations-continued to rise.”

Halpin and Warren are right: Republicans have rigged the system to overwhelmingly favor the rich and the result has been stagnation and increasing insecurity for the middle class. But the reason Republicans been able to get away with this is that stagnation at a household income of $63,000 isn’t all that bad.

So how do we get this point across? Here’s the basic message:

  1. In 1970, the median income for workers age 35-44 was $29,000 (in today’s dollars).

  2. Today, the median income for the same worker is $32,000.

  3. During that time, total income (adjusted for population) has increased by about 80%. If that growth had been spread evenly instead of going predominantly to the already rich, the median income of a middle-aged worker today would be $52,000. That’s a difference of 20 grand. (And no, counting healthcare benefits doesn’t change this calculation very much.)

I dunno. Is that enough to get people pissed? If middle-class income had merely kept pace with economic growth, your $32,000 job would instead be paying you $52,000. But it’s not. And the reason is that virtually all of the economic growth of the past three decades has been funneled into the pockets of the well-off, the rich, and the super-rich.

And yet, that $52,000 number is just airy theorizing. And $32,000 isn’t so bad. And the Steelers are playing this weekend. So how do we get people to pay attention to this?

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