Perhaps you've heard the fascinating story of Hungarian mathematician Abraham Wald, who during World War II distinguished himself by helping the British Air Ministry analyze damages to their fleet of bomber planes.
The ministry had done an initial survey of the aircraft that returned from successful bombing missions. Noticing heavy damage to the planes' extremities, the ministry recommended that those portions be reinforced.
Mr. Wald realized that this instinct, while intuitive, was backward: The planes that returned had survived the peripheral damage, thereby implying that the bombers that never returned had been downed from hits to more vital sections, including the fuselage and wing spars. The mathematician's brilliant, counterintuitive insight — that the bombers should be reinforced in the areas least, not most damaged — saved countless lives.
Abraham Wald's story helps explain why complaints about Americans on food stamps and unemployment gets the story of our supposed "rising socialism" just as backward as the British Air Ministry's initial aircraft damage assessment.
In the wake of the great recession, America witnessed record numbers of people applying for food stamps and unemployment. Although unemployment applications last month fell to a five-year low — good news you won't hear about on Fox News — the economic recovery remains incomplete. Or, rather, the recovery remains far from inclusive, because those at the bottom who were among the first to lose their jobs have been among the last to be re-employed.
Citing unemployment and food stamp data, as the conservative media does incessantly in support of their preposterous warnings about creeping socialism, gets the data backward. If income and wealth were actually becoming more equal, we ought to see less dependence upon federal subsidies like food stamps, unemployment insurance and Medicaid, not more. Right?
Instead, persistent and growing dependence on these programs implies that economic inequality is worsening. And we needn't bother with mere speculation about this relationship because hard data are available.
Between 2009 and 2011 — after President Barack Obama took office, mind you — overall household incomes grew 14 percent. That sounds encouraging. But the wealthiest 13 percent of Americans, those living in households with a net wealth of at least $500,000, accounted for all of the gains. Yes, all: Their wealth rose 21 percent.
Meanwhile, every other wealth category in the bottom 87 percent experienced net declines. That includes Americans who are anything but poor loafers: Those whose net household wealth ranged between $250,000 and $500,000 experienced a 4 percent drop, and those between $100,000 and $250,000 suffered a 5 percent decline. These are working households, often featuring one or more college-educated earners.
We hear incessantly from the fact-free right wing media that we are experiencing rising socialism, courtesy of our radical, anti-colonial, socialist, Kenyan Muslim non-citizen president. Yet notice that there's never any statistical data to back such claims because, well, the data prove otherwise.
Meanwhile, here in the real world only two truths are possible. Given the widening — repeat, widening — disparities in American wealth since he took office, the first is that Mr. Obama is either not a socialist or he's a very, very ineffective socialist.
The second is that, despite any redistributive attempts such as the Affordable Care Act, extended unemployment benefits and the 2009 stimulus package, our political economy is so fundamentally skewed in favor of those with existing wealth that neither Mr. Obama nor anyone else can actually do anything to level the economic playing field for America's poor, middle or even upper middle classes.
The truth is that any politician daring to reverse rising inequality in the United States faces a Sisyphean battle. And in a country where the bottom 90 percent of Americans own 10 percent of all stock, bond and mutual fund wealth, while the top 10 percent control 90 percent, the weight of the stone is getting heavier, and the incline of the hill up which it must be pushed is growing steeper.
Those bloviating about the so-called "problem" or rising socialism in America should be regarded like the British Air Ministry officials. Unemployment rates and food stamp dependency aren't evidence of rising socialism; in fact, they are proof of the opposite.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @schaller67.