Facts set aside as left fights to preserve vision

June 01, 2006|By THOMAS SOWELL

Conservatives who point out the declining audience for the big television network newscasts, and declining public trust in the news media in general, often underestimate how much clout the liberal media still have.

For example, while the economy has had near-record highs in growth rates and in the stock market, with near-record lows in unemployment and inflation, polls show that the public thinks the economy is in big trouble.

A steady diet of gloom-and-doom spin in the liberal media has worked. The death of media influence has been greatly exaggerated.

More is involved than partisan attempts to undermine the Bush administration. For decades, the liberal media and the intelligentsia have had to struggle mightily against good economic news. Their whole vision of the world - and of themselves - is at stake.

It's not easy. Even Americans in the bottom 20 percent in income have higher real incomes than in the past, and such staples of middle-class life as microwave ovens and motor vehicles are now common among "the poor."

What can the liberal-left do? It can keep pointing out how the bottom 20 percent's share of the national income is declining. Of course, people don't live on percentage shares, they live on real income. Moreover, it is not the same people permanently stuck in the bottom 20 percent. Three-quarters of the people in the bottom 20 percent in 1975 were also in the top 40 percent at some point over the next two decades.

Nor is there anything mysterious or sinister in the fact that the percentage share of the national income going to the bottom 20 percent has declined.

How do most people get income? They work for it. What happens when pay for work goes up? The gap widens between those who are working and those who are not. Most of the people in the bottom 20 percent are not full-time, year-round workers.

There are, in fact, more heads of household who are full-time, year-round workers in the top 5 percent than in the bottom 20 percent. Regardless of what the facts are, you can always find exceptions to those facts. The liberal media inundate us with stories about those exceptions, which are presented as if they were the norm.

The middle-age single mother struggling to make ends meet while working at a minimum-wage job has become a staple of these journalistic tales. In reality, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that only about 2 percent of workers who are 25 years old or older have minimum-wage jobs. But you would never guess this, judging by media hype. In general, people earning the minimum wage have been a declining proportion of the population during the past quarter-century. In absolute numbers, they have declined from 7.8 million to just over 2 million, even though the population as a whole has been growing.

Some people want to preserve historic buildings and others want to preserve forests or art. But the liberal media and intelligentsia are strenuously trying to preserve the vision of poverty and economic distress.

Why these desperate attempts to preserve poverty as a vision while it is eroding as a reality? Because it is "the poor" who give the left its moral authority and political clout. The very phrase "the poor" suggests that we are talking about some permanent group of people rather than transients in low-income brackets who will be in higher income brackets in a few more years.

The poor are the very lifeblood of the left, attracting activists and support among the intelligentsia and - perhaps most important - allowing the left to indulge in self-congratulation as people who "care."

But if they really cared, they would want to know what the facts are and what the actual consequences of their various nostrums are. People who truly cared would want to know what the actual consequences of minimum-wage laws are - on which there is evidence from around the world that they create unemployment. But why risk a heady vision over mere facts?

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun. His e-mail is info@creators.com.

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