‘Unrecognizable’

The Romney campaign released an odd memo over the weekend, which was largely forgettable, except for the conclusion, which stood out for me.

When Barack Obama ran for the presidency, he promised to “fundamentally transform the United States of America.” Sadly, he is succeeding. He is pushing America toward a European-style entitlement society that would have been unrecognizable to our parents’ generation — let alone the Founders’ — with diminishing economic opportunity and ever-growing government programs and regulations.

Most of this is cheap, boilerplate nonsense — the “Europe” stuff is already pretty tiresome — but I’m fascinated by this notion that American public life has become, or is about to become, “unrecognizable.”

The Romney memo references the “Founders,” which is amusing at a certain level. Would Thomas Jefferson and James Madison recognize 21st century America? Well, no, of course not. They lived in an 18th-century agrarian society with a fairly small population. I imagine they’d have quite a few questions if they were transported through time. “There are 50 states?” “The U.S. is the global super power?’ “Women are allowed to vote?” “There’s a black president?”

What I don’t know is why we’re supposed to find this so troubling.

But we don’t even have to go back that far. Romney’s memo believes our parents’ generation would be equally outraged by our trajectory. The memo wasn’t specific about what “programs and regulations” should be deemed offensive, but does Romney realize what kind of policies were in place for much of the 20th century?

Taxes used to be much higher, as were union membership rates. The Republican Party had lots of moderates who endorsed all kinds of progressive ideas, including massive spending projects and a living wage. The economy was heavily regulated — to the point that airlines didn’t even set their own prices; “bureaucrats” did.

I’m reminded of a column Harold Meyerson wrote a while back.

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.

The Republican campaign’s memo is hackish and deceptive, but at a certain level, it should be taken seriously because it warrants follow-up. What is it, exactly, that Romney believes is so “unrecognizable” about today’s national trajectory?

As near as I can tell, generations gone by would find the country “unrecognizable” because of how far to the right we’ve gone.