I’ve read Joe Scarborough’s latest Politico column a couple of times, trying to wrap my head around it. The gist of it has something to do with the America the MSNBC host grew up in and the way in which he fears the American dream may be slipping away.
My mom and dad were born in the middle of the Great Depression, came of age during World War II and graduated college when Eisenhower was president. American power was at its zenith, millions of troops were joining the work force, our old rivals’ factories lay in ruins and interstate highways were springing up across the USA.
America’s remarkable ascent in the middle of the 20th century framed my parents’ worldview while I was growing up in towns ranging from northwest Florida to upstate New York.
Regardless of my family’s financial challenges, my mother and father always believed that in America there were no such things as short cuts, hard work was always rewarded and the good guys always won in the end.
Scarborough talked about his family’s can-do spirit in the 1960s and 1970s, and their “faith in America.” He contrasts this with the problems he perceives plaguing the nation today: concentrated wealth and income disparity, a jobs crisis, a squeezed middle class, excessive corporate salaries and bonuses, and stagnant middle-class wages.
Yes, Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman and conservative media personality, apparently wrote a column that could be endorsed by Bernie Sanders.
And what does Scarborough suggest we do to address these systemic economic problems? Well, he never quite gets around suggesting any policies or solutions in his column, but he nevertheless notes his father “would ask what became of the America that he knew, where working hard and playing by the rules always paid off.”
I suppose it’s heartening that Scarborough is at least acknowledging real economic crises that are usually only identified by the left.
But let’s go a step further with this — which is to say, let’s actually explore what became of the America Scarborough’s dad once knew.
Let’s put aside, at least for a moment, what the good ol’ days were like for women and minority groups, because the discrimination was a national disgrace. Instead, let’s just focus for now on economics.
What’s striking is to realize how extraordinarily liberal the country was, economically, when Scarborough’s father was a young man. In the 1950s, 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 explored this in even more detail last fall, 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.
If Scarborough wants to reverse the trend, it will require a rather dramatic shift in his political ideology. The era he remembers was 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.
Scarborough may want to go back, but it’ll require a pretty sharp left-hand turn.