For tea party, a question: What now?

Victory in the battle over the debt ceiling will be hollow unless the wealthy start creating jobs again

August 03, 2011|Dan Rodricks

How's business? I asked a friend that question the other day. He's a midlevel manager for a large retailer. "Oh," he said, "we're just waiting to close up. It's like every place else — a bunch of rich guys will sell the company to another bunch of rich guys, lay off hundreds of people and pocket bonuses. That's what qualifies as business genius in America today."

He said this not with outrage but with dry resignation, reflecting the common acceptance of a diminishing job base for the American working class and ever-expanding wealth for the elites who run (and sell) companies.

This is a conversation almost every American has had. It's what we understand as a reality of the global economy and what we fear as a permanent condition: not enough good jobs relative to the U.S. adult population; jobs lost forever to technological advances; jobs long gone overseas and never coming back; companies cutting back and forcing more productivity out of the exhausted workers who remain; corporations and banks sitting on trillions in cash, unwilling to invest and create new jobs here.

We also know the reality of middle-class wages — that they've been virtually flat, when measured against the cost of living, since the early 1980s. Nearly half of American households pay no federal income taxes; they either do not make enough money to be liable or they use credits, deductions and exemptions to avoid liability. I'm referring generally to households that bring in $50,000 a year or less.

Meanwhile, the wealthiest Americans continue to accumulate wealth in a three-decades-long shift of income from one class to another. This shift — a perverse "redistribution of wealth" — has contributed to adult poverty levels that this country has not seen since before the federal government's war on poverty commenced in the 1960s.

The nation's unemployment rate is still north of 9 percent, and more than 6 million Americans have been out of work for six months or longer.

And, so, where's the outrage over all this?

Where's the populist anger?

The only populist anger we've seen since the Great Recession has come from the tea party.

But what has been the target of tea party anger?

Not the short-sighted, greedy banks and other corporations that contributed to the collapse of 2007-2008. Nor all the companies that sit on mounds of cash today, refusing to invest in America. Nor the Republicans who ran up deficit after deficit while George W. Bush was in theWhite House.

No, the tea party believes the federal government that tried to save the country from economic ruin is at the root of our problems.

If the government was not so big and generous, we'd have a better country, the tea party says. If we free up cash for the private innovators who make this country great, then there will be more jobs for Americans, and we'll be on the path to prosperity again.

That's the tea party gospel — starve the beast and feed the merchants; they'll take care of us.

But that's just warmed-over trickle-down theory. A lot of us were around when Ronald Reagan pushed that Trojan horse into Washington. "Government is not the solution, government is the problem," he said, and took axes to taxes.

In the three decades since, we've created a super-elite class of wealthy Americans whose excesses and recklessness led to this long recession. They got tax cuts in the Bush administration and had them extended into the Obama administration. They got bailouts, too. Their friends in Washington continue to take care of them.

All that Sturm und Drang over the debt ceiling was as much about protecting the rich as it was about cutting the size of government. The tea party and the Republicans got both — they hit the exacta. That President Barack Obama and the Democrats ended up whining about the way the tea party "held the nation hostage" made it a trifecta.

So, OK, a victory for the tea party — they won an ideological battle over the debt ceiling.

But now what? Will their rich friends, spared new taxes, create jobs? What happens if the economy continues to slide, with no significant improvement in employment? Do you think a truly independent-minded tea party will see the light, feel snookered by the Republican mainstream and redirect its anger at those who deserve it?

I don't. I think they'll just blame President Obama.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR 88.1 FM. Facebook:

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