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The Economic Speech: Robert Reich on What Barack Obama Said at John Brown Memorial Park

Robert Reich:

The Most Important Economic Speech of His Presidency: The President’s speech today in Osawatomie, Kansas — where Teddy Roosevelt gave his “New Nationalism” speech in 1910 — is the most important economic speech of his presidency in terms of connecting the dots…. [H]ighlights….

For most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded. Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefitted from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and investments than ever before. But everyone else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren’t - and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up.

He’s absolutely right – and it’s the first time he or any other president has clearly stated the long-term structural problem that’s been widening the gap between the very top and everyone else for thirty years – the breaking of the basic bargain linking pay to productivity gains.

For many years, credit cards and home equity loans papered over the harsh realities of this new economy. But in 2008, the house of cards collapsed.

Exactly. But the first papering over was when large numbers of women went into paid work, starting the in the late 1970s and 1980s, in order to prop up family incomes that were stagnating or dropping because male wages were under siege – from globalization, technological change, and the decline of unions. Only when this coping mechanism was exhausted, and when housing prices started to climb, did Americans shift to credit cards and home equity loans….

Ever since, there has been a raging debate over the best way to restore growth and prosperity; balance and fairness…. This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make or break moment for the middle class…. Now, in the midst of this debate, there are some who seem to be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia. After all that’s happened, after the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, they want to return to the same practices that got us into this mess…

He might have been a bit stronger here. The “they” who are suffering collective amnesia include many of the privileged and powerful who have gained enormous wealth by using their political muscle to entrench their privilege and power. In other words, it’s not simply or even mainly amnesia. It’s a clear and concerted strategy….

[J]ust as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there’s been a certain crowd in Washington for the last few decades who respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. “The market will take care of everything,” they tell us. If only we cut more regulations and cut more taxes - especially for the wealthy - our economy will grow stronger. Sure, there will be winners and losers. But if the winners do really well, jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everyone else. And even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, they argue, that’s the price of liberty. It’s a simple theory - one that speaks to our rugged individualism and healthy skepticism of too much government. It fits well on a bumper sticker. Here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It’s never worked…. Remember that in those years, in 2001 and 2003, Congress passed two of the most expensive tax cuts for the wealthy in history, and what did they get us? The slowest job growth in half a century. Massive deficits that have made it much harder to pay for the investments that built this country and provided the basic security that helped millions of Americans reach and stay in the middle class - things like education and infrastructure; science and technology; Medicare and Social Security. Remember that in those years, thanks to some of the same folks who are running Congress now, we had weak regulation and little oversight, and what did that get us? Insurance companies that jacked up people’s premiums with impunity, and denied care to the patients who were sick. Mortgage lenders that tricked families into buying homes they couldn’t afford. A financial sector where irresponsibility and lack of basic oversight nearly destroyed our entire economy. We simply cannot return to this brand of your-on-your-own economics if we’re serious about rebuilding the middle class in this country…. Look at the statistics. In the last few decades, the average income of the top one percent has gone up by more than 250%, to $1.2 million per year. For the top one hundredth of one percent, the average income is now $27 million per year…

The very first time the President has emphasized this grotesque trend…. And what it’s done to equal opportunity, and how it’s eroded upward mobility:

And yet, over the last few decades, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk. A few years after World War II, a child who was born into poverty had a slightly better than 50-50 chance of becoming middle class as an adult. By 1980, that chance fell to around 40%. And if the trend of rising inequality over the last few decades continues, it’s estimated that a child born today will only have a 1 in 3 chance of making it to the middle class…. [T]his crisis has left a deficit of trust between Main Street and Wall Street. And major banks that were rescued by the taxpayers have an obligation to go the extra mile in helping to close that deficit. At minimum, they should be remedying past mortgage abuses that led to the financial crisis, and working to keep responsible homeowners in their home. We’re going to keep pushing them to provide more time for unemployed homeowners to look for work without having to worry about immediately losing their house.

I wish the Obama administration had made this a condition for the banks receiving bailouts.

But there’s far more to the speech…. 

Here, finally, is the Barack Obama many of us thought we had elected in 2008…

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