They call it "class warfare." House Republican Leader John Boehner and the Senate's second ranking Republican, Sen. Jon Kyl, say President Barack Obama's proposal to let the Bush tax cuts expire on the nation's millionaires unfairly pits one group of Americans against another in a class war.
They must be joking, in that cynical way that conquerors do. Boehner and Kyl have built political careers waging class warfare, but against the middle and working classes. These BFF's of corporate lobbyists have used their access to the levers of power time and again to support policies that benefit the wealthy.
Remember earlier in Boehner's career he was caught handing out checks from tobacco lobbyists on the House floor? Since then he has only strengthened ties with lobbyists as he's risen within the Republican leadership. Meanwhile, Kyl's top contributor is the rich-man's lobby, Club for Growth, the goals of which are to eliminate capital gains and corporate income taxes. Guess who that leaves to pay taxes: wage stiffs.
On the expiring Bush tax cuts, these congressional Republicans say that households at the tippy top that earn more than $250,000 a year should get a renewed tax break even if we have to add billions to the federal deficit. They stood against unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless because it would add $34 billion to the deficit, but adding $700 billion to the national debt over 10 years for tax cuts to millionaires is a national priority.
It brings to mind the labor movement's plaintive song Which Side Are You On? Not mine.
Our nation is facing two structural problems that need to be solved if the middle class is going to flourish again. First, wages for workers no longer track with their increases in productivity. And second, there is not enough federal revenue to pay for the government we want and expect. Republicans don't care about either of these.
Right now, the top 1 percent of Americans enjoy about 24 percent of the nation's income — an even greater share than the 18 percent they had in 1915 during the age of the great robber barons.
The reasons behind America's stark income inequality are analyzed in a terrific series by Timothy Noah in the online magazine Slate. (St. Petersburg Times columnist Robert Trigaux mentioned this series in an earlier column.) In The Great Divergence, Noah explores how the distribution of wealth has gotten so out of whack, a trend that started in the late 1970s. Income distribution in the United States is now more unequal than in Guyana, Nicaragua and Venezuela. And while Latin America's income inequality is shrinking, ours continues to increase.
For those who say this is a natural consequence of the inexorable march of technology and globalization, Noah's research doesn't bear that out. He notes that every other advanced economy faced these same challenges and did not succumb to the kind of wealth stratification that America has experienced.
After considering a host of other contributing factors including tax policy, the pampering of Wall Street and corporate executives, the decline of unions, education failures and immigration, Noah finds that all these causes are essentially political. In the most telling installment, "Can We Blame Income Inequality on Republicans?" Noah compares what happened to incomes under different presidents. He finds that over the last half century it was the contrast in policy choices on a range of issues between Democratic and Republican presidents that had the greatest influence on income distribution.
Under Democratic presidents there was a flattening of income inequality — to be expected. But also under Democrats, real incomes increased faster than under Republicans, and not only for the poor and lower middle class but the upper middle class and well off. "We were all richer and more equal!" Noah writes. While under Republican presidents real income growth slowed for the vast majority of households, even as inequality increased. "We were all poorer and less equal!" Noah exclaims.
When Republicans are in the White House prospects for working people dim. For Americans who are not super rich, siding with this crowd means you are voting against your economic interests, and helping the rest of us lose the ongoing class war.