Tuesday, May 17, 2005

I don’t believe in coincidences in politics. When I see the Wall Street Journal and New York Times both running big Page One stories within two days of each other on a subject not remotely time sensitive, I know something is going on.

More than likely, it signals the beginning of an organized campaign by the liberal media to gin up an issue for the Democrats.

When a team is on a losing streak, the best the coach can do is line up a game with a cream-puff opponent. Even if the victory doesn’t mean much substantively, it can go a long way toward helping restore his players’ confidence and, hopefully, lead to victories against tougher opponents.

When liberals are on a losing streak, two of the issues they come back to time and time again are racism and inequality. In the late 1980s, for example, they all ganged up on South Africa to make its system of apartheid the No. 1 issue in American politics. It wasn’t that apartheid had gotten any worse or that we had anything to do with it. It was just an issue on which the left knew it couldn’t lose because apartheid was indefensible. In short, apartheid was the cream-puff opponent that every coach wishes for to give his team that easy victory they so desperately need to turn themselves around.

The left is on another losing streak today, and so their intellectual leaders in the liberal media have gone back to the old playbook for an easy win that will get their team out of its slump. This time, it is the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, which has been working for them since the days of Karl Marx. But it’s getting harder and harder to milk this cow.

On Friday, May 13, the Wall Street Journal began the first of a series on challenges to the American dream with a Page One piece titled, “As rich-poor gap widens in the U.S., class mobility stalls.” The essence of this article was that few people rise above the economic class to which they were born. And compared to the socialist nations of Europe, class mobility is no greater here than there.

On Sunday, May 15, the New York Times began a series saying exactly the same thing, often quoting the same sources and citing the same data. What do you think the odds are of that happening independently? Zero, I think.

Here is what I believe is happening. Class warfare has been the main staple of leftist ideology for hundreds of years. Especially in the 1980s, we heard over and over again in the media about how the top fifth of households was increasing its share of aggregate income. The implication was that the pie was fixed, so the gains of one group came at the expense of the rest. But conservatives effectively demolished this argument by showing the pie was getting larger. The real income of all groups was increasing and everyone was better off, even if some were more better off than others.

The left then shifted its argument to imply those in each income class were essentially the same people year after year. This justified a redistributionist tax policy even if the well-being of every income class rose. It didn’t matter that the data used to justify this policy were before-tax incomes, meaning even confiscatory tax rates would have no effect on the outcome, or that the data also omitted most welfare benefits, meaning practically everything government does to equalize incomes was completely ignored.

But the strongest argument conservatives had was data showing significant income fluidity. Those well-off today are often poor tomorrow, and those born poor are often able to lift themselves into higher income brackets. In short, the existence of income mobility utterly smashed the liberal premise and forced a withdrawal. In the Clinton years, the left simply ignored a continuation of the same trends that it found so objectionable in the 1980s.

Now the left is back flogging the same issue in hopes of returning itself to the win column. But first it has to cope with the reality of mobility among income classes. Toward this end, it is trying to redefine it. Now it is no longer whether there is significant mobility — the left concedes that. The question instead is whether mobility today is greater than in the past. This shifts the focus away from the large level of mobility to its change over time, thus obscuring the issue.

In future columns, I will look at specific aspects of this new campaign and what the facts are. For now, just be aware the game is afoot.

Bruce Bartlett is senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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