What's wrong with a little class warfare?

March 25, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

Over all the years since the Reagan administration, whenever I mentioned the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, and between the rich and the middle, certain people in the room threw the class warfare flag, marched off a 15-yard penalty and accused me of making stuff up.

And it was always Republicans, conservative independents, or self-described libertarians who complained -- pretty much the same people who now stand on the wrong side of history as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act becomes law.

Class warfare, they claimed, was uncivilized and un-American. One shouldn't engage in it.

For those who hated class warfare, the last thing this country needed to know was the kind of subversive stuff put out by the Economic Policy Institute: That the ratio of CEO compensation to average worker pay rose from 24:1 in 1965 to 262:1 by 2005.

Now, who needs to hear such things? If you focus too much on that, we'll rip the social fabric of this nation.

Highlighting the widening gap between rich and poor -- mentioning, for example, various reports showing median income of the top fifth rising at more than four times the rate of the bottom fifth -- only served to divide Americans.

Making reference to the working poor (more than one in four working families are considered low income today, according to research funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation) just caused hard feelings.

If you held up -- as The New York Times did most recently -- Census Bureau data showing median income rising by only 12 percent since 1979, while that for the top percentile went up nearly 400 percent, you were uncouth.

Mention that income taxes for the top earners fell nearly three times further than that for the middle class -- class warfare! Personal foul! Fifteen yards and loss of first down!

So, at various times over the years -- when Republican presidents proposed further cutting taxes on the wealthy, for instance, or when Senate and House Republicans voted against raising the minimum wage for, among others, people who clean the CEO's toilet -- I guess I've been uncouth and subversive, bringing up the breathtaking divide between the wealthy and everyone else.

Of course, the affluent hate hearing this stuff. Guilt, or at least a certain self-consciousness, has something to do with it. Fear -- that some day the great unwashed will gather pitchforks and come after the super-rich in their Aspen hideaways -- might have something to do with it. And too much emphasis on the U.S. socioeconomic gap eventually might lead to, good God, increased taxes on households making more than, say, $250,000.

So Americans of a certain economic stature and philosophy, and who control most of the golden microphones of talk radio and talking-head television, avoided the subject. And the weenie Democrats, complicit in the silence, pretty much stayed out of the fight.

Until Barack Obama came along. Some, including this columnist, thought he took too long to come to the fight for health care reform, and some still find him to be a centrist who too easily and too soon gave up the single-payer and public options.

But the legislation Mr. Obama signed into law on Tuesday was a loud and clear salvo in the class warfare this country has long needed.

It's not going to correct all the inequities, but it certainly marks the first time in forever that Washington has done anything to address the staggering concentration of personal wealth fostered, in large part, by Republican trickle-down tax policy since the early 1980s.

Making health insurance possible for some 32 million Americans who were without it puts Democrats on the side of the working poor, the people in the middle, lower-middle and low rungs of this country's socioeconomic climbing wall. That certainly includes a whole heap of Republicans, men and women who despise the Democrats and Mr. Obama. Why people at the bottom and middle-bottom are complaining about this boggles the noggin. If they can't see who's on their side after this, there's no prescription plan that will improve their eyesight. Still, they'll benefit from health insurance reform. They'll get coverage despite their grievances with government, their prejudices and their voting habits.

And as for the wealthy -- they'll pay more to make all this possible, whether they are Republican, independent or Democrat. That's one of the beautiful things about it.

Yes, a little class warfare serves the nation now and then.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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