- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 4, 2000

Book part of a gloom-and-doom genre

Theda Skocpol's new book is full of old ideas. Its lineage can be traced most directly to John Kenneth Galbraith's 1957 opus, "The Affluent Society," which argued from Keynesian premises for an ambitious program of taxpayer-funded "investment" during times of peace and prosperity.
While Mr. Galbraith's work which helped inspire John F. Kennedy's New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs expressed the soaring dreams of an optimistic age, "The Missing Middle: Working Families and the Future of American Social Policy" is rooted in a fretful pessimism about the supposedly dire plight of "ordinary working families." The author is contributing to a gloom-and-doom genre already crowded with titles like "America: Who Stole the Dream?" (1996), "Created Unequal: The Crisis in American Pay" (1998), and "Falling From Grace: Downward Mobility in the Age of Affluence" (1999).
Despite the roaring U.S. economic boom since 1983, the author and her ideological kindred (including Katherine S. Newman and the elder Galbraith's son, James K. Galbraith) manage to crank out volume after volume of hand-wringing about the unequal distribution of wealth and the putative needs of "the vast bulk of working middle-class families."
Even in an economy that creates jobs so fast that many employers are concerned about labor shortages, the author cannot resist damning the boom because "by far the greatest part of the decade's economic gains have flowed toward the most privileged heights of the American class structure …" Lest we miss what she means by "privileged heights," the writer ends this sentence by telling us that, "not to put too fine a point on it," these gains have flowed "toward those who 'speculate in paper' on Wall Street."
Never mind the fact that 76 million Americans now own stocks or mutual funds. Note that, in Theda Skocpol's world, "economic gains" are not earned, they simply "flow," while the investors and financial agents who provide and manage the capital that fuels economic growth are reviled as mere speculators.
The writer's premise is that American political debate neglects the middle class by focusing excessively on the "privileged" and the poor: "Too often lost from view in these debates are Americans of the missing middle."
Nothing could be farther from the truth. In the past decade, politicians have battled furiously for the allegiance of the middle class. In the early 1990s, the focus was on "angry white males" affected by a wave of corporate "downsizing." In 1996, the focus shifted to the concerns of suburban "soccer moms." Perhaps at no time in our history have leaders been so intensely attuned to the sentiments of the "middle" which the writer claims is "missing" from the debate.
The author's thinking is full of exasperating contradictions. She begins one promising sentence, "Surely Americans of all political persuasions can acknowledge that children do best in two-parent families," then fumbles it away by adding, "supported by the nation and local communities, without denying that single-parent families also deserve our support."
What can such a Dagwood sandwich of a sentence possibly mean? If children in two-parent families are already doing "best," what additional "support" do they require? And what manner of "support" does Theda Skocpol have in mind that should be equally available to all families? "Enhanced social benefits available to both middle- and low-income workers are crucial for building a family-friendly America. Along with universal health insurance coverage, two other priorities are universal access to paid family leaves and affordable child-care for working families."
Great. Welcome to Sweden.
The author's enthusiasm for imposing European-style social democracy on America (where voters have consistently rejected such ambitious schemes) is sadly typical of the academic elite to which she belongs. A full professor at Harvard University, she dares speak of the "commonsense values" of "everyday Americans."
More annoying than the writer's condescension, however, is her intellectual dishonesty. For while she spends much of the book posing as an objective observer of social and economic trends, she concludes by declaring her "frankly partisan" aim of "rebuilding the Democratic Party from the bottom up." Having discarded her pretense of neutrality, she then calls for "a network of progressive Democratic groups" who will "deepen activism within the Democratic Party."
For all her extravagant show of concern about "ordinary working families," Theda Skocpol proves in the end to be nothing more than a Dukakis Democrat, dressing up the same stale "progressive" agenda in fancy new rhetoric for the consumption of suburban voters.

Robert Stacy McCain is an assistant national editor for The Washington Times. His e-mail address is mccain@twtmail.com.

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