Reducing Economic Inequality: Obama v. Specter

(noon. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

I want to talk about economic inequality, President Obama, the Democratic Party, and the core beliefs Democrats share.

I’ll start with Robert Reich, former Labor secretary for Bill Clinton, who has an interesting article in Salon today that caught my eye: Obama, the enemy of economic inequality

He makes several good points in it, all of which reinforce my fundamental view that the best of President Obama is his core opposition to the extreme economic inequality that exists in America today.

First, he addresses the repeated description of President Obama as a pragmatist, a description President Obama encourages:    

Being a pragmatist is a statement about means, not ends. It describes someone who chooses the most practical way of achieving a certain goal but it does not explain why he chooses one goal over another.

Much more, after the fold.  

Reich is correct.  Calling one a pragmatist begs the question: yes, you’re for what “works,” but what is your criteria for choosing goals against which progress can be measured in determining what works.

My belief is that President Obama has a core conviction of a broad equality in which as many as possible can have a decent life and living wage.  I think some may come from his mother, his own experiences, and his Christian faith.  Obama’s Christianity is of the social justice type  of thought and belief.  In the late 19th Century, a related version was called the Social Gospel.  

I believe that President Obama’s has a core support for unions and working people.  Everything I see in his personal history, not just rhetoric, but life choices, tells me he does.

I agree with Reich on this:

The President seems to me especially thoughtful and passionate about one of the great moral questions of domestic policy today: widening inequality of income and wealth, and therefore of opportunity and political power. As I’ve noted before, as recently as 1980, the richest 1 percent of Americans took home about 9 percent of total national income. But since then, income has concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. By 2007, the richest 1 percent took home 22 percent of total national income.

Obama, the enemy of economic inequality

I really believe it is a core part of Barack Obama.

As Reich says, “This trend [of inequality] cannot be sustained, either morally, economically, or politically.”  I think Obama and Biden know that.  I think even Treasury Secretary Summers, who I have criticized at times, knows that.

In fact, to me, that understanding defines who is a Democrat.  Others may disagree, but certainly since FDR and the northern urban wing prevailed during the 1930s, a broad economic equality, or at least preferring less economic inequality, has been the major strand of thought uniting the Democratic Party.  Teddy Kennedy and Jimmy Carter, whatever their disagreements, shared that core belief.  (I sided with Kennedy, but I don’t doubt that Jimmy Carter wanted less inequality, and then (1980), “the richest 1 percent of Americans took home about 9 percent of total national income.”  Obama, Edwards, and Clinton, all the Dem candidates shared that core belief, although they came out differently on means and how equal it should be.  Kerry, Gore, Bill Clinton, Dukakis, and Mondale shared that core belief.    

In July 2007, the Sunday New York Times had a front page article called: The Richest of the Rich, Proud of a New Gilded Age.  I wrote a diary about it then, using it as an example of the Two Americas John Edwards spoke about.  We don’t need John Edwards to know there is Two Americas: the rich and everyone else.  (He had some personal failings, but he did articulate that concept quite well.)  

I believe that President Obama understands those Two Americas, and I believe he understands the subgoups in the the rest of us of the poor and those getting by.      

Back to the article though.  In it, the Times focused on statistical inequality, but also looked at a winner of the last 30 years:  

The tributes to Sanford I. Weill line the walls of the carpeted hallway that leads to his skyscraper office, with its panoramic view of Central Park. A dozen framed magazine covers, their colors as vivid as an Andy Warhol painting, are the most arresting. Each heralds Mr. Weill’s genius in assembling Citigroup into the most powerful financial institution since the House of Morgan a century ago.


These days, Mr. Weill and many of the nation’s very wealthy chief executives, entrepreneurs and financiers echo an earlier era – the Gilded Age before World War I – when powerful enterprises, dominated by men who grew immensely rich, ushered in the industrialization of the United States. The new titans often see themselves as pillars of a similarly prosperous and expansive age, one in which their successes and their philanthropy have made government less important than it once was.

People can look at the last 25 years and say this is an incredibly unique period of time,” Mr. Weill said. “We didn’t rely on somebody else to build what we built, and we shouldn’t rely on somebody else to provide all the services our society needs.”

The Richest of the Rich, Proud of a New Gilded Age.

Sounds funny, doesn’t it, knowing that what Mr. Weil “built” was on a foundation of sand, and is now partly owned by the US because it would have been insolvent without a government bailout.

The inequality was wrong, even if there had been no depression/recession. Still, the article was dead on in tracing the rise of the new tycoons and analogizing to the time right before the Great Depression:  

Then, starting in the late 1970s, as the constraints receded, new tycoons gradually emerged, and now their concentrated wealth has made the early years of the 21st century truly another Gilded Age.

Only twice before over the last century has 5 percent of the national income gone to families in the upper one-one-hundredth of a percent of the income distribution – currently, the almost 15,000 families with incomes of $9.5 million or more a year, according to an analysis of tax returns by the economists Emmanuel Saez at the University of California, Berkeley and Thomas Piketty at the Paris School of Economics.

Such concentration at the very top occurred in 1915 and 1916, as the Gilded Age was ending, and again briefly in the late 1920s, before the stock market crash. Now it is back, and Mr. Weill is prominent among the new titans. His net worth exceeds $1 billion, not counting the $500 million he says he has already given away, in the open-handed style of Andrew Carnegie and the other great philanthropists of the earlier age.

The Richest of the Rich, Proud of a New Gilded Age.

Well, the New Gilded Age is over and we now have to rebuild America. It matters how we rebuild. Reich notes that Obama’s actions lately reflect Obama’s belief that economic inequality must be addressed:

That’s why, I believe, the President in recent weeks has criticized the heads of Wall Street banks who continue to take home seven figure incomes even as taxpayers bail them out; giant companies that shelter their income in places like Bermuda or the British Virgin Islands; the rich who say they need huge tax deductions in order to continue to make charitable contributions; and other forms of unwarranted privilege in our society, especially at a time when millions of Americans are losing their jobs, their savings, and their homes.

Obama, the enemy of economic inequality

Reich’s conclusion is that President Obama should use his moral authority and drop the “pragmatic stance” a little in order to lead a fight against inequality.  I’m okay with that, although it is far more important to me that the President is on our side.  

There are times I agree with and times I disagree with the means President Obama employs, but I don’t doubt that he seeks to lessen that inquality.  I’d like to see it a lot less, and I’m not sure where the President would find a level of inequality to be acceptable.  1980 inequality?   1960s?  We might differ on that actual goal, but the direction toward equality is right.

What’s most important is that the President wants to lessen the Great Class Stratification. I share that core belief with the President.

This is a longer diary than I usually write, and perhaps a bit circuitous, but I wanted to talk about this.  It does tie together.  The points matter very much to me.  It’s why I sometimes criticize policy choices by the President, but support him overall. Hell, it’s why I’m a Democrat.  You see, I thought economic inequality was too great in 1980.  It was, but compared to now, it seems almost egalitarian.  

All this leads up to the last name in the title of this post.  Arlen Specter was elected to the Senate in 1980.  At that time, as Mr. Reich points out, “the richest 1 percent of Americans took home about 9 percent of total national income. But since then, income has concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. By 2007, the richest 1 percent took home 22 percent of total national income.”

In all those years, did the Republican Senator Specter fight this concentration of wealth and the growing economic equality?

Does he share that core belief that nearly all Democrats share: that huge economic equality is both morally wrong and economically inefficient?  

Did he fight to stop the growing inequality under mostly Republican rule since 1980?  Or did he fully aid and abet it?

One example, Specter voted FOR the Bush tax cuts. That set the stage for the great economic inequality of this decade.    

I don’t see evidence that he fought the growing economic equality.  That’s why I voted “yes” on drafting Joe Sestak to run for the Senate.  Being a Democrat means something, and Senator Specter just does not get it.

A “very dangerous radical” railed against the kind of economc inequality we now face, and his words are equally valid today:

It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property. And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man.

The hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor – these had passed beyond the control of the people, and were imposed by this new industrial dictatorship. The savings of the average family, the capital of the small-businessmen, the investments set aside for old age – other people’s money – these were tools which the new economic royalty used to dig itself in.


For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.

Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of government.


These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.

The brave and clear platform adopted by this convention, to which I heartily subscribe, sets forth that government in a modern civilization has certain inescapable obligations to its citizens, among which are protection of the family and the home, the establishment of a democracy of opportunity, and aid to those overtaken by disaster.


President Franklin D. Roosevelt Speech before the 1936 Democratic National Convention, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, June 27, 1936, A Rendezvous With Destiny

Being a Democrat means more than just grabbing a “D” when you think you’ll lose in a Republican primary.  And I just have not seen anything from Senator Specter over his career or in the last few weeks that indicates to me that he feels FDR’s message and President Obama’s core belief about inequality in his gut.  His votes support the Great Inequality.  In opposing a moderate budget sent by the President to begin the work of ameliorating the worst of the last decade, Specter voted no.  

He’s not a Democrat.  

Crossposted from Daily Kos:…


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    • TomP on May 7, 2009 at 00:55

    more equality.

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