Saturday, May 16, 2015

Obama and Warren: A contrast in rhetorical styles

Over the years, I've on several occasions been moved to summarize Obama's economic master narrative. Here's one more pass:

America has at various key points in its history committed itself to investments in shared prosperity and to widening the circle of opportunity to groups previously excluded. These include Lincoln's investment in railroads and infrastructure, FDR's in social welfare and education, and Eisenhower's in the interstate highway system.  In the Reagan years -- or in some speeches, in the Bush Jr. years -- the country took a wrong turn and the gains of economic growth started going disproportionately to the top. Many feel "the American dream is slipping away."  Fortunately, democracy gives America the capacity for self-correction, and his election and re-election bespeak a renewed commitment to shared prosperity and investments that will foster sustainable growth. It's a seductive narrative, highly idealized, but with enough acknowledgment of weakness and injustice to make it credible.

Lord knows I've been a longtime admirer of Obama's rhetoric -- of  the nuanced understanding of cause and effect he takes pains to articulate, of his Lincolnesque view of American history as a continuous, never-completed drive to fulfill the promises expressed in its founding documents, of his embrace of incremental, nonlinear progress. It's been often noted that he doesn't do sound bites, or leave us with memorable single phrases. I've argued before that Obama works both above and below the level of the single phrase: below, with musical, repetitive phrasing, and above, with conceptual clarity and coherence.

This is all by way of too-long introduction to the fact I heard Elizabeth Warren speak at the American Prospect birthday fundraiser on May 13, and her rhetorical strengths are..different from Obama's. Telling broadly the same economic story as Obama has been telling these past eight years, of investments in shared prosperity derailed by the Reagan Revolution, her narrative line was simpler -- and cleaner.

Where Obama acknowledges multiple causes of our current economic malaise, from global competition and technology to racism as well as Republican tax, regulatory and labor policy, Warren hews to a three-part indictment of Reaganomics: deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy, and consequent defunding of investments in shared prosperity. Here's the first part of that narrative, which I've transcribed from my own taping:
But then things changed. When Ronald Reagan was elected president, a new economic theory swept the country, turning it in a different direction. Supply-side or trickle-down economic theory  came into fashion. Republicans claimed it would help the economy grow. When all the varnish is removed, trickle-down means just helping those at the top and telling  everyone that when the rich get richer, somehow you'll be better off too.

Trickle-down policies are really pretty simple. First,  fire the cops. Not the cops on Main Street, the cops on Wall Street. They called it deregulation and they railed against big government, but make no mistake: this was about turning loose  the big banks and the giant international corporations to do whatever they wanted to do. Turn them loose to rig the markets. Turn them loose  to outsource more jobs. Turning them loose to sell more mortgages  that exploded and credit cards that cheated people. Turning them loose to load up on more risk.

And then, when it all came crashing down, in the most telling twist of all, the deregulators, who hated big government, shoveled billions of dollars to the biggest banks, but pretty much everyone else was left behind.

Three things the country did right in a lost economic golden age. Three pillars of shared prosperity Republicans tore down in the Reagan era.
It's a simple and simplified tale, but essentially true, if it conveniently leaves out causes that Obama addresses. For example, as Jamelle Bouie recently tweeted (and probably wrote somewhere), America has arguably never had an effective multiracial liberal coalition: support for liberal policies collapsed when the beneficiaries were perceived to be mainly minorities. Obama acknowledges something like this in a landmark December 2013 speech on inequality:
And if, in fact, the majority of Americans agree that our number one priority is to restore opportunity and broad-based growth for all Americans, the question is, why has Washington consistently failed to act? And I think a big reason is the myths that have developed around the issue of inequality.

First, there is the myth that this is a problem restricted to a small share of predominantly minority poor. This isn’t a broad-based problem; this is a black problem or Hispanic problem or a Native American problem.

Now, it’s true that the painful legacy of discrimination means that African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans are far more likely to suffer from a lack of opportunity -- higher unemployment, higher poverty rates. It’s also true that women still make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men.

So we’re going to need strong application of anti-discrimination laws. We’re going to need immigration reform that grows the economy and takes people out of the shadows. We’re going to need targeted initiatives to close those gaps.
Warren did acknowledge that in our lost economic golden age, women and minorities were shut out. But I didn't hear anything like this. Of course, hers was a shorter speech.

The difference in style can be grasped, I think, in the two speakers' narrative accounts of why economic gains have gone mainly to the top in the last 40 years. Here's Obama packing a few facts in December 2013:
But starting in the late ‘70s, this social compact began to unravel. Technology made it easier for companies to do more with less, eliminating certain job occupations.

A more competitive world led companies ship jobs anyway. And as good manufacturing jobs automated or headed offshore, workers lost their leverage; jobs paid less and offered  fewer benefits.

As values of community broke down and competitive pressure increased, businesses lobbied Washington to weaken unions and the value of the minimum wage. As the trickle-down ideology became more prominent, taxes were slashes for the wealthiest while investments in things that make us all richer, like schools and infrastructure, were allowed to wither.

And for a certain period of time we could ignore this weakening economic foundation, in part because more families were relying on two earners, as women entered the workforce. We took on more debt financed by juiced-up housing market. But when the music stopped and the crisis hit, millions of families were stripped of whatever cushion they had left.

And the result is an economy that’s become profoundly unequal and families that are more insecure. Just to give you a few statistics: Since 1979, when I graduated from high school, our productivity is up by more than 90 percent, but the income of the typical family has increased by less than 8 percent. Since 1979 our economy has more than doubled in size, but most of the growth has flowed to a fortunate few. The top 10 percent no longer takes in one-third of our income; it now takes half. Whereas in the past, the average CEO made about 20 to 30 times the income of the average worker, today’s CEO now makes 273 times more.

And meanwhile, a family in the top 1 percent has a net worth 288 times higher than the typical family, which is a record for this country.

So the basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed. In fact, this trend towards growing inequality is not unique to America’s market economy; across the developed world, inequality has increased. Some -- some of you may have seen just last week, the pope himself spoke about this at eloquent length. How could it be, he wrote, that it’s not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?

But this increasing inequality is most pronounced in our country, and it challenges the very essence of who we are as a people.
That's a stat-filled story that paints a pretty clear picture. But note the qualifiers: the trend began in the 1970s, pre Reagan; it's to some extent global; some real economic pressures led businesses to outsource.; technology played a role.

We've seen the first half of Warren's narrative of economic paradise lost. Now, in the denouement, her own stat shot:
The second part of trickle-down was to cut taxes for those at the top. Cut them when times are good, cut them when times are bad. Cut them for millionaires, cut them for billionaires. But when all those tax cuts meant there was money for schools, less money for road repairs, less money for medical research, they said it was "responsible" to cut back on those investments, and that it was responsible to try to get by with forty year-old subway cars and fifty year-old power grids. That is was responsible to saddle our kids with debt to try to get an education. So what's been the result of that? The trickle-down experiment that began with the Reagan years has failed America's middle class.

Sure, GDP grew. But remember how from 1935 to 1980, 90% of all people, middle class, working folks, poor people,  got about 70% of all income growth that was created in our economy? Since 1980, how much did the 90% get of income growth in this economy -- from 1980 to 2012, the 90% got zero. None. Nothing. All of the income growth went to the top 10%. In fact it's worse than that. The average family not in the top 10% makes less money today than they did a generation ago. All of the new money in this economy during the trickle-down years has gone to the top. All of it.

Republican trickle-down economics has built an America that works. It works for the wealthy, and the powerful, and it leaves everyone else behind. This isn't conjecture, this isn't politics, this cold hard fact.
Never mind technology and global competition and world trends. America sold its middle-class birthright for a mess of supply-side pottage.

Obama has four stats or statistical pairings in his narrative; Warren has two, in dramatic contrast with each other, that boil down to one: "zero. None. Nothing." There's your sound bite.

Again, this narrative and conceptual simplification doesn't make Warren a superior speaker to Obama. She sees the forests; he knows the trees -- and perhaps sees more overlapping, interlocking forests. Whatever your preference, the contrast is striking.

UPDATE: Nancy LeTourneau takes this contrast a step further and looks at how the differing rhetoric reflects differing approaches to policy.

UPDATE 2: For Matt Yglesias, Warren's "bottom 90% got zero" bridges gap between inequality and opportunity -- he suggests Americans are more concerned with the latter.

Related: If only Obama would say what he's always said
              Is Obama offering 'new ways of understanding the economy'?

1 comment:

  1. There is a lot of good material here, but Obama uses one leftish cliche that I am really tired of......when he states that productivity is up and incomes are not.
    Economists define productivity as GDP divided by hours worked. GDP is full of things like taxes, debt, prison spending, divorce lawyer fees, and many other things that are not good at all.
    By contrast, the person in the street thinks that productivity means the individual worker producing more widgets per hour, due to technology and good management.
    That is misleading too, since most Americans do not produce widgets.

    Take a look at who has been getting wage hikes greater than inflation for the past decade. Included in this number are registered nurses, college teachers, and federal government workers. Are they more productive than in the past? Give me a break.
    They get higher wages in large part because their employers are fairly passive. Unlike small business owners who see every raise coming out of their personal checkbook, the bosses in hospitals, college, and government can pass along higher labor costs fairly easily.
    This is a main reason why so many workers in the 1950's got wage increases. Transportation, energy, and telecommunication were regulated far more than today, and the regulators would accept higher wages when they set prices.

    I believe that a few times in the 1950's, the UAW called its wage increases "productivity bonuses.' This phrase had an undue amount of influence.

    I covered all of this in an article I wrote called "Productivity is Bunk" which can be found on my website