by Chris Bodenner
In the wake of the recent Gaffe-A-Palooza, Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard has a pretty short-sighted piece chronicling the campaigns' numerous "Kinsley gaffes" -- when a politician accidentally tells the truth. He brings up the technically-true-but-controversial remarks made by Ferraro, Clark, and Black, but fails to recognize how the specific context of those remarks warranted ire. (Naturally, the media hyperventilated, but their criticism was still valid). If context counts for nothing, would Ferguson say that Clark's comments about McCain would have been no different had they been delivered by McCain himself? Does Ferguson want to argue that Jesse Jackson was technically correct when he said Obama was "talking down to black people," since the 6'2'' nominee was speaking before a seated audience?
In making his case against Kinsley gaffes, Ferguson focuses on the most recent factual faux-pas -- Phil Gramm's "mental recession":
In other words: What Gramm said was true, but it didn't matter. He wins on the merits -- he said the economy wasn't in a recession, and it wasn't -- but he deserves a reprimand anyway. He had stumbled into a zone of politics where you're not supposed to say something true, and where you get punished if you do.
Ferguson, of course, is right: a recession technically requires two quarters of economic contraction. And there's certainly something to be said for media hype hurting consumer confidence. But Ferguson completely, and conveniently, ignores the most odious part of Gramm's gaffe -- "nation of whiners." The treasury-secretary-in-waiting wasn't nailed for his economic truth-telling (after all, McCain's several "psychological" remarks weren't broadcast until Gramm-gate). He was nailed for his political callousness. And it's not like Gramm was some economics professor advising the McCain campaign; he was a senator, whose job is to be sensitive to those paying his or her salary (or at least fake it). And I'm sure the fact that Gramm is a millionaire bank lobbyist didn't help him with a nominee trying to woo working-class swingers in the Rust Belt.
Meanwhile, over at the Los Angeles Times, two professors debate the merits of Gramm's remarks. Doug Henwood argues that "times are great, but only for the rich," citing a slew of statistics (household income dropped 2% between '99 and '06, hourly wages are down 12% from '78). Steven Landsburg counters, "We have gotten so used to perpetual income growth that it's tempting to think of a two-year setback as some kind of disaster." He basically conveys that while the economy's a bit rocky right now, Americans are still wealthier than any other people in any other period. Landsburg:
You might also say that the subprime mess has cost a lot of people their homes, but it would more accurate to say that the subprime market allowed a lot of people to live beyond their means for a few years. Those people are understandably disappointed that those years are over, but, having lived in nice houses for a while, they're still net winners.
I tend to side with Landsburg. While times are certainly strained for many Americans, the country shouldn't get carried away with economic angst. Most poverty in the U.S., after all, is relative, not absolute. Henwood realizes this relativity, but twists it for his own purpose: "Times are pretty good for tenured professors and economic pundits [how gracious!] -- maybe not as good as they've been for the titans of private equity, but still a lot better than they've been for teachers, hairdressers and computer programmers." Yes, but teachers are better off than fast-food workers, who are better off than migrant workers, who are better off than subsistence farmers, who are better off than famine-stricken villagers -- who, if using Henwood's logic, should be the only legitimate "whiners.
Reading Henwood also springs to mind a paradox I've noticed in the left-liberal discourse regarding class: consumerism is BAD, yet any drop in disposable income (and yes, even a 12% drop in wages -- with exceptions -- is disposable) is also BAD. Liberal planks like job insecurity and poor access to healthcare are legitimate grievances to fight against (as I would). Just because the U.S. economy is comparatively stronger than any other doesn't mean complaints should be scoffed at, or regulations ignored. But liberals waging a wage war against the wealthy is not only futile, it's frivolous -- and thus self-contradictory.
Nevertheless, I also find it particularly ironic that the "stop your whining" sentiment is rarely turned against rich Republicans like Gramm who persistently rail against taxes. Again, like slipping wages, creeping tax hikes should always be checked (though the top .01% whose income has jumped 240% since '78 could certainly spare some of that excess). But it seems like everyone -- upper, middle, and working class -- could use a little perspective when it comes to the luck of living in America.