In Defense of the Working by Austin Serio
Note: The following views expressed have not been officially endorsed by the College Democrats at New York University. They represent only the thoughts and concerns of the author. All voices remain a vital part of our democracy.
Image: Tom Ketscher, "Bernie Sanders in Madison, claims top 0.1% of Americans have almost as much wealth as bottom 90%, (AP Photo)
2016 has inarguably been a clash of the titans. The multiculturalist left has been raging against the outpouring of fury from the white working class, which has watched as jobs have evaporated and incomes have stagnated. This election year will ultimately be seen as a major realignment of the American political body: the Republicans will increasingly grow into their role as the nationalist party, while the Democrats continue to morph into the party of multicultural globalism.
Underneath the horrifying nationalist rhetoric of xenophobia and racism from the Trump camp lies the very real economic malaise of the working class. Fueled by the neoliberal Reagan Revolution of the 1980’s, the American middle class has stalled. Neoliberalism demands that we all bend to the market; everything we do must be in service of strengthening the market. Such a prescription is a recipe for not only unending tax cuts and union busting, but also the destruction of the middle class. In neoliberalism, people are seen not as humans to be respected, but rather as human capital whose value to society is determined by what they can bring to the market. When workers make demands, demands that are necessary to improve their own lives, they are, through the neoliberal lens, seen as a drag on the market, rather than as a human with essential needs or as an investment to a greater future. It is in a similar respect that unions are seen as a drag on the market. When unions demand higher pay and better benefits, they are derided as deadweight against market forces. Likewise, tax cuts are demanded on the basis that corporations and the 1% should be able to retain as much of their wealth as is realistically possible as a reward for their success in the market.
The two aforementioned economic prescriptions are problematic because they erode the two essential components which grow the middle class: the bargaining power to increase their own incomes to a living wage that rises alongside productivity and inflation, and their purchasing power in the economy. It is imperative that the middle class possesses the largest share of the wealth because it is the middle class that grows the economy. As the age-old adage goes, the rich stay rich by not spending their money. By 2015, “the top one-tenth of 1 percent [owned] almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent”. If that wasn’t disturbing enough, the owners of Walmart, the Waltons, control the same amount of wealth as 42% of Americans. Yikes. While such numbers appear to be mind-bendingly false, they’ve both been rated as true by Politifact. Per a Dartmouth study, the rich as a collective group are savers. On an individual level, saving isn’t necessarily an issue. However, when the group who controls the majority of wealth hoards said wealth, rather than reinvesting it back into the economy, inequality rises.
Prior to neoliberalism, corporations and the rich were taxed heavily, a move which drew directly from the groups which naturally earn exponentially more under capitalism and redistributed said wealth in the form of public investment. The socially-oriented post New Deal system kept a lid on income inequality while simultaneously growing the middle class through such investments in infrastructure, public education, and jobs programs. However, the middle and lower classes spend their wealth much differently; rather than stashing away a large portion of their incomes (as they are unable to do to meet basic living needs), they tend to spend between 100% and 110% of their income. In other words, money given to the middle and working class flows directly back into the economy, prompting further economic expansion. With the advent of Reagan’s neoliberal revolution, the controls on the income of the top were slashed alongside public investment in the middle class. The neoliberal hatchet-to-the-system has been only further exacerbated by international trade deals. Let me be crystal clear: international trade is not only good for the economy; it is a permanent fixture in the global economy. However, contemporary trade deals such as the TPP and NAFTA have been crafted in secret and steeped in neoliberal market fundamentalism. While these trade deals are paraded as being good for the worker by including provisions like “consumer protections” and “wage protections”, such weak and unenforced provisions have been sold to obscure the underlying market fundamentalism peddled by the very same trade deals. These massive trade deals are crafted in secret, without the input of not only elected officials, but more importantly, without the input of the working and middle classes.
As Democrats, we believe that when women’s issues, such as abortion, are discussed, it should be women who are running the discussion because it is women who most intimately understand the needs of other women. Similarly, when issues affecting the African American community are raised, space should be ceded to the African American community to lead the discussion and decision making on issues which most intimately affect their community. To the majority of most Democrats, both statements feel painfully obvious. However, in a similar vein, the working class has been alienated from having a voice in the issues which most intimately affect them. International trade deals should not only be debated in the open, but they should also be crafted with significant input from the working class. The growing elitism in Washington insists that all the decision making be made by Ivory Tower economists, but leaves little room, or frankly, respect for the voice of the middle class. I am a man of science who maintains that an argument must always be ceded to fact. However, simply because someone is an economist with a degree from a leading university doesn’t automatically mean that such a person knows more than the working man, but rather, that both groups have access to different critical pools of knowledge.
Discrediting the working class because of their lack of an economics degree is wrong, and only serves to contribute to the ongoing problem. Given the opportunity to lead, Americans have never let their country down. Unfortunately, the very real plight of this group has been coopted by a bigoted, xenophobic demagogue. Donald Trump’s appeal lies in his ability to speak to the disaffected blue collar voter. Sadly, Trump has used immigrants and refugees as scapegoats for the middle class’s very real economic woes. The problems of the middle class do not come from immigrants or globalization, but rather the neoliberal alienation of the working. We must do more as both a party and a country to bring working people back into the fold because when the middle class grows, we all do better.