The good ol’ days

THE GOOD OL’ DAYS…. We talked briefly last week about Republicans pining for the halcyon days they remember so fondly. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) lamented not too long ago the notion that Democrats are “snuffing out the America that I grew up in” during the 1950s and 1960s.

Putting aside what that era was like for women and minority groups, the striking thing about such pining is how extraordinarily liberal the country was, economically, during these good ol’ days. The top marginal tax rate was 90% (nearly triple today’s figure); union membership was 30% (more than quadruple today’s figure); the Republican Party, which still had plenty of liberals, endorsed all kinds of progressive ideas (spending projects, living wage); and the economy was heavily regulated — airlines didn’t even set their own prices.

Harold Meyerson explores this in even more detail in his column today, emphasizing conservative activists’ misguided understanding of what it is they think has gone wrong.

When the Tea Partyers get around to identifying how America has changed and to whose benefit, however, they get it almost all wrong. In the worldview of the American right — and the polling shows conclusively that that’s who the Tea Party is — the nation, misled by President Obama, has gone down the path to socialism. In fact, far from venturing down that road, we’ve been stuck on the road to hyper-capitalism for three decades now.

The Tea Partyers are right to be wary of income redistribution, but if they had even the slightest openness to empiricism, they’d see that the redistribution of the past 30 years has all been upward — radically upward. From 1950 through 1980, the share of all income in America going to the bottom 90 percent of Americans — effectively, all but the rich — increased from 64 percent to 65 percent, according to an analysis of tax data by economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. Because the nation’s economy was growing handsomely, that means that the average income of Americans in the bottom 90 percent was growing, too — from $17,719 in 1950 to $30,941 in 1980 — a 75 percent increase in income in constant 2008 dollars.

Since 1980, it’s been a very different story. The economy has continued to grow handsomely, but for the bottom 90 percent of Americans, it’s been a time of stagnation and loss. Since 1980, the share of all income in America going to the bottom 90 percent has declined from 65 percent to 52 percent. In actual dollars, the average income of Americans in the bottom 90 percent flat-lined — going from the $30,941 of 1980 to $31,244 in 2008.

In short, the economic life and prospects for Americans since the Reagan Revolution have grown dim, while the lives of the rich — the super-rich in particular — have never been brighter. The share of income accruing to America’s wealthiest 1 percent rose from 9 percent in 1974 to a tidy 23.5 percent in 2007.

It’s important to appreciate the economic anxieties so many are experiencing. Millions of middle-class families feel put upon and helpless. They’re working longer and harder, for less, and their optimism about the opportunities for future generations has all but disappeared.

But the problem is that these same working folks also struggle to tell friend from foe. Too many have been convinced that “government spending” is somehow evil, despite the fact that it’s this spending that often goes to benefit the middle class. They’ve been convinced that the Affordable Care Act that will deliver tremendous benefits to their family is awful.

In short, for 30 years, people who struggling to keep their heads above water have been told not to trust life-preservers if they’re paid for with public funds.

For conservative activists who nod their heads when Boehner wistfully thinks back to the ’50s and ’60s, there’s a fundamental confusion over what that means — the era they liked is the one in which New Deal policies created “economic security and opportunity” that were “widely shared,” thanks in part to high marginal top rates and wages that nearly kept pace with the cost of living.

If Boehner and his allies want to go back to “the America they grew up in,” we can, but it’ll require a pretty sharp left-hand turn.