Saturday, May 31, 2014

Is Obama offering "new ways of understanding" the economy?

Political scientist Julia Azari, who has written a book about presidential rhetoric, suggests that Obama's rhetoric has so far failed to be transformative:
A more nuanced critique of Obama’s rhetoric might suggest that, especially early on, his rhetorical choices fit very neatly into existing terms of debate. His speeches have offered very little in terms of new ways of understanding the central policy issues of his presidency – healthcare, the minimum wage, immigration, climate change and the environment. I’m not arguing that with better framing, Obama would have been more successful on these issues. But the old frames have allowed opponents to define the discussion, even after policies are signed into law. Furthermore, debate about issues like immigration and minimum wage continue to invoke the same tradeoffs and considerations that they have in the past. Effective rhetoric would cast familiar issues – particularly ones like immigration, which tend to cut across party lines – in terms of values and considerations that are both novel and resonant. That might not be enough for policy change now, but it might allow for it later, under the right conditions. This is admittedly a high bar for presidential rhetoric, even for someone with Obama's facility with certain kinds of public speeches.

This may be true at the single-policy level. It is true at the sound bite level. Obama's not good at war cries, or slogans, or, less cynically, single phrases that sink into the national consciousness.

But I don't think it's true at the macro level. Obama has always told a coherent story about American history that feeds a macro case for moving the center back to the left. I've documented this over and over. The narrative theme is a "more perfect union," the tale of a nation moving ever closer to fulfilling its founding ideals, which can never be fully realized. Periodically, the nation musters the will to widen the circles of equal rights and economic opportunity. It took a wrong turn with Reagan that accelerated with Bush Jr. It's time to restore our commitment to shared prosperity -- not only because it's fair and improves lives, but because economic growth that mainly benefits the wealthy is not sustainable.

I suggested to Prof. Azari on Twitter that Obama has consistently advanced a macro case for moving the center left, correcting the Reagan revolution. She responded:
Agreed, but as long as it's Reagan reversal the Reagan paradigm/frame reigns
And more broadly:
on race, i think his rhetoric has been most original and stirring- and hugely disruptive...but on econ issues and even FP i think framing has been more derivative

I would like to see that argument in more detail.  And I lack Prof. Azari's deep background in other presdients' rhetoric.  But I've listened to presidents all my life, and I do think there's something new in Obama's case for "shared prosperity":  it incorporates an argument against growing inequality and makes the case that economic growth is not sustainable if poverty remains entrenched and the middle class is hollowed out.

Obama has made this case since at least 2007, but in the Piketty era, when it's begun to sink in that the lion's share of growth over the last 30 years has gone not only to the top 10 or 20 percent but primarily to the top one or one-tenth of a percent, he has progressively sharpened it. In fact his December 2013 speech about inequality at the Center for American Progress was pure Piketty -- a detailed, coherent narrative incorporating the latest statistics about the growth of income inequality since 1980. It also grappled with the role of racism in persistent American poverty and confronted head-on the perception that action against poverty is primarily a minority agenda. Perhaps his "hugely disruptive" input on race and his long-term economic argument are entwined.

In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Piketty fingers the Reagan tax cuts as the main trigger of the explosion of inequality over the last thirty-plus years:
Of course changes in tax laws are themselves linked to changes in social norms pertaining to inequality, but once set in motion they proceed according to a logic of their own . Specifically, the very large decrease in the top marginal income tax rate in the English-speaking countries after 1980 (despite the fact that Britain and the United States had pioneered nearly confiscatory taxes on incomes deemed to be indecent in earlier decades) seems to have totally transformed the way top executive pay is set, since top executives now had much stronger incentives than in the past to seek large raises. I also analyze the way this amplifying mechanism can give rise to another force for divergence that is more political in nature: the decrease in the top marginal income tax rate led to an explosion of very high incomes, which then increased the political influence of the beneficiaries of the change in the tax laws, who had an interest in keeping top tax rates low or even decreasing them further and who could use their windfall to finance political parties, pressure groups, and think tanks (p. 335).
Obama, last December, told a similar tale (my emphasis on the Piketty echoes):
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.
Azari acknowledges that Obama has given Americans a new frame for understanding race issues. In this speech, he confronts the role of racism in inhibiting action against poverty and growing 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.

But -- but here is an important point. The -- the decades-long shifts in the economy have hurt all groups, poor and middle class, inner city and rural folks, men and women, and Americans of all races.

And as a consequence, some of the social patterns that contribute to declining mobility, that were once attributed to the urban poor -- you know, that’s a -- that’s a particular problem for the inner city, you know, single-parent households or drug abuse or -- it turns out now we’re seeing that pop up everywhere.

A new study shows that disparities in education, mental health, obesity, absent fathers, isolation from church, isolation from community groups -- these gaps are now as much about growing up rich or poor as they are about anything else. The gap in test scores between poor kids and wealthy kids is now nearly twice what it is between white kids and black kids. Kids with working-class parents are 10 times likelier than kids with middle- or upper-class parents to go through a time when their parents have no income.

So the fact is this: The opportunity gap in America is now as much about class as it is about race. And that gap is growing. So if we’re going to take on growing inequality and try to improve upward mobility for all people, we’ve got to move beyond the false notion that this is an issue exclusively of minority concern. And we have to reject a politics that suggests any effort to address it in a meaningful way somehow pits the interests of a deserving middle class against those of an undeserving poor in search of handouts.
The segue from race to class is an absolute necessity in American politics. In my view Obama effectively threads a needle here-- acknowledging the role of racism in entrenching poverty, but rallying the nation to attack poverty in a race-blind manner.

The remainder of the speech, like most of Obama's speeches on the economy, makes the case for a series of measures that he argues are essential for sustainable long-term growth -- in this case in education, labor fairness, and health care.  Perhaps Azari is right that he has not cast individual policy measures in a new light. But he consistently places them within this framework. Note, for example, how he does that with health reform in this speech:
You know, Dr. King once said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” Well, not anymore, because in the -- (applause) -- in the three years since we passed this law, the share of Americans with insurance is up, the growth of health care costs are down to their slowest rate in 50 years, more people have insurance, and more have new benefits and protections, a hundred million Americans who’ve gained the right for free preventive care like mammograms and contraception, the more than 7 million Americans who’ve saved an average of $1,200 on their prescription medicine, every American who won’t go broke when they get sick because their insurance can’t limit their care anymore. More people without insurance have gained insurance, more than 3 million young Americans who’ve been able to stay on their parents’ plan, the more than half a million Americans and counting who are poised to get coverage starting on January 1st, some for the very first time.

And it is these numbers, not the ones in any poll, that will ultimately determine the fate of this law. (Applause.) It’s the measurable outcomes and reduced bankruptcies and reduced hours that have been lost because somebody couldn’t make it to work and healthier kids with better performance in schools and young entrepreneurs who have the freedom to go out there and try a new idea. Those are the things that will ultimately reduce a major source of inequality and help ensure more Americans get the start that they need to succeed in the future.
It might be that my argument here proves Azari's point. Extended statistics-packed narratives don't register the way welfare queens or death panels do.  Sound bites are disparaged, but they do sink their teeth into the brain and heart. And they're easier to craft in attack mode than in affirmation or advocacy.

But Obama's speeches work not only on the macro level but on the micro -- in speech rhythm and strong repetition, as I once suggested to James Fallows. His speeches are musical as well as logical. Perhaps something's missing in the middle ground. Or perhaps we just can't hear a president when growth is anemic and mainly benefiting the wealthy.

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