Spread the wealth around!

Debates, Media / journalism, Politics, Presidential Elections, US Economy, US Elections, US Politics

One of the oddest features about Wednesday’s debate was John McCain’s repeated, dismissive references to how Obama wants to “spread the wealth around”. McCain repeated that line no less than nine times, each time derisively, and nine times is a lot in a debate like this. In comparison, he mentioned “education” six times, and “health insurance” three times (which Obama mentioned ten times).

(By the way, if you’re looking for Wordles of the two candidates’ words during the debate, like the ones I made for the second debate, check out these ones that Flickr user spudart made.)

I was actually looking whether there was a YouTube video splicing together all his “spread the wealth around” lines. Because if I knew how to edit videos, I’d make one. I mean, just go to the wonderful NYT interactive election debates tool, type in “spread” in the neat search box above the coloured bars, and use the forward and play buttons to the right to switch between all the references. It’s wonderfully bizarre. (OK, maybe you have to be a geek.)


Wages have stagnated for a decade .. For most folks, spreading the wealth probably seems like a good idea. (Image used under CC license from Flickr user M J M)

The weird thing about these invocations is that, as Noam Scheiber pointed out, he “repeatedly invoked Obama’s line about ‘spreading the wealth around’ without explaining what makes it so offensive (beyond his own menacing tone).” As Scheiber adds, “it didn’t strike me as self-evidently damning.” Right. I mean, God forbid anyone would want to spread the wealth – give other people a shot at it too. As Ezra Klein adds, “Median wages have stagnated for a decade … For most folks, spreading the wealth around probably seems like a good idea.”

McCain got the quote from Obama’s answer to “Joe the Plumber” (who isn’t actually a licensed plumber, doesn’t actually make $250,000 and wouldn’t have to pay higher taxes under Obama’s plan even if he did buy that company), when they met during a campaign stop. It’s worth watching the whole answer Obama gave. There’s nothing particular controversial in his answer as a whole, and the “spreading the wealth” line came in the context of giving people who are where Joe was earlier in his life tax cuts so they would be helped making it too. But as Campaign Diaries points out, the McCain campaign wants you to see the line as “code words for socialism”.

The thing is that McCain didn’t actually bother to make that argument in the debate. He appeared to think that just repeating the line would make people go, “oh yeah, that’s terrible – spreading the wealth around, how can he say such a thing – he must be a socialist”. This equation strikes me as typically one of those things that only works within the bubble. Maybe because for most people, a $250,000 income is so far removed from their world, they can’t even imagine. After all, it’s just the top 3% who earns that much. It’s five times the median household income, and eight times the median individual income.

It is not far removed, however, from the lives of those reporting on politics for us. For network TV reporters, for pundits and politicians, for anchormen and talk show hosts, it’s not that much. They do know people who make that much, because they are often among the top earners in America themselves. So for them, it hits close to home. And because pundits and anchormen hang out with other pundits and anchormen, their view of what is normal is warped – for a striking example see the video below the fold. And this has serious consequences for the opportunities to market liberal economic policies.

Earlier this month, Ezra summarised the phenomenon well:

The problem is, elites have an availability bias. They know a lot of folks who make over $100,000. Charlie Gibson wasn’t being malign when he named $200,000 as an average income — he was being unreflective. [..] People live near folks with similar incomes. The rich aren’t randomly sprinkled across the country. Rather, a lot of them live near Charlie Gibson [..]. $100,000 will look common to someone living in Georgetown, but quite rare to someone living an a hollowed out community in the Rust Belt.

To most of the country, no one makes $100,000 a year. It’s five percent of the nation. And not a five percent they run into very often. But it’s a five percent that pundits live amongst, that reporters live amongst, and that politicians live amongst, and all of those folks agree that it’s not very much money at all [..].

I rarely came across such a mindboggling example of this as when I was going through videos about Joe the Plumber. This clip is from Fox News:

First there’s the carefully selected snippet from Obama’s answer, then the analysis starts. Indignation fuels the responses of the moderators, and at the 1:22 mark, the blonde woman kicks off this conversation:

– Because theres a lot of people who own small businesses. And lets be honest – a lot of them are making little money, and a lot of them are making a little more money. But 250,000 dollars is the cut-off.
– For small businesses..
– Thats not a lot!
– A lot of people make that.
– They make that! And so they would really need to examine the tax policy and see how it would effect them.

This conversation is unreal. A lot of people? Again, under 3% of the US population makes that much. The median household income for the US is $51,000; in battleground states Missouri and North-Carolina it’s $45,000. The Fox News clip illustrates that there is indeed a media elite, and it is disconnected with “heartland” America, but not in the ways that the conservatives usually mouthing those phrases mean.

Now experiencing a personal disconnect is one thing. Ezra himself, in an earlier post, revealed how he was falling into this trap:

I was looking at some family income distribution numbers yesterday and was a bit surprised [..]. To enter the Top 5 percent, you need to make $157,000 a year. I’ve known a lot of families making around $150,000, and none of them would have described themselves as much beyond upper middle class, or “doing pretty well.” And though I’d call Top 5 percent rich, in income terms, I probably would have said $250,000.

Democrats seem to use the higher definition among themselves, and only consider rolling back tax cuts on those making “above $250,000 a year” [..]. But when everyone below the 95th percentile is untouchable, and effectively middle class, you’re in a bit of an odd discourse, distribution wise.

Right. I should say so. But then I don’t know many families making $150,000 a year. I think that, maybe barring the one aunt and uncle, I have never met anyone who makes that much.

Then again, who’s asking me? And that’s the point. The very people who, through life circumstances and the resulting distortion in their perception of what is normal or regular, respond viscerally to the notion of raising taxes on people in the top 5% of the income scale, are the ones with a disproportionate influence on how such a proposal is portrayed. They’re the figures of authority who have the ability to present it to us as a realistic and none too unusual an option, or as something risky, possibly dangerous and definitely very liberal. You know how that choice works out usually. This is what Ezra calls “The Rich Man’s Populism of the Political Class”:

But because of that, the elite class reacts harshly if a presidential candidate proposes to raise taxes on folks making, say, over $100,000 a year, even though that’s a tiny minority of the country. It’s a tiny minority of the country that includes a whole lot of journalists, television pundits, think tank workers, political operatives, etc.

And it’s not just that this political class controls the pipeline of information, and determines in what terms voters hear of socio-economic proposals. They have a specific hold on the standard thinking mode even within the Democratic camp, for three reasons. First, Democratic analysts, pundits and politicians also mostly live within this same “elite class”, and as Ezra’s own example showed are vulnerable to the same distortions of perspective. Secondly, adds Ezra: “this is the knowledge worker class that donates a lot of money to progressives,” and who wants to bite the hand that feeds him? And thirdly, to complete the Ezra trifecta and refer to his latest related post again, their conventional wisdom is sufficiently rooted in the last couple of elections to instill fear in Democrats:

[E]lites are, in certain crucial ways, behind the voters. I tend to watch these debates in a room filled with politically involved liberals, and most all of them anxiously cringe every time McCain goes on the attack. Liberals are scarred. They remember all too well the elections they’ve lost because they were attacked as untrustworthy on national security, profligate with federal dollars, punitive with taxes. So they hear McCain put his Greatest Hits collection on the phonograph and they recoil, sure that those golden oldies will work. [..]

Pundits only know what they’ve seen. And they’ve seen these attacks work. And so the debate finishes, and the red lights beneath the cameras blink back to life, and they go with the safe bet: Today will be like yesterday.

All of this is bad because it makes even Democratic politicians shy away from really progressive economic policies. There’s a reason that even the Obama campaign has fought the economic issues of these elections on a platform of huge tax cuts. Progressive tax cuts, for sure, middle class tax cuts. But still, he’s chosen to fight this issue “entirely on their turf,” as Kevin Drum puts it.

Now whos looking vaguely socialist?

Now who's looking vaguely communist? (Image used under CC license from Flickr user elycefeliz)

Nevertheless, the Obama campaign does seem less susceptible to being freaked out by media tizzies over progressive economic policies than Democrats have been traditionally, the last decade or two. It seems more willing, and more able, to bypass the media filter in some respects and drill straight into voter sentiments. And those voter sentiments seem to have veered further liberal than the pundits are prepared to acknowledge. Just see how the pundits initially declared every one of the three debates a tie, only for the polls to show overwhelming majorities of viewers thinking Obama won.

Let’s hope, then, that Ezra is right and that the political and media classes are behind the curve on this one, and that voters “see Wall Street falling apart and bridges falling down and employer-based health care dissolving and … taxes aren’t their biggest problem anymore”:

The rest of the country has been living amidst the sharpest inequality since the 1920s. Median wages have stagnated for a decade while the rich have reached almost supernatural heights of opulence. For most folks, spreading the wealth around [..] probably seems like the fair thing to do, particularly as we now see that much of that wealth was built off risky trading strategies that have now dealt a gut punch to the broader economy, and thus the pensions and incomes of the rest of us.

So there you are. This is what you need for a real turn to progressive policy: for voters to be shocked by the financial crisis into recognizing this, even when the media filters are hostile to progressive economic notions; for Camp Obama to keep its mettle after the elections too; and, well – maybe you people could elect a new press corps. With prioritised elections for talk show hosts, pundits, analysts and anchor(wo)men.


1 Comment

  1. Robert  •  Oct 17, 2008 @6:04 pm

    “Because if I knew how to edit videos, I’d make one.”

    Free program that comes with recent versions of Windows:


    Tutorial on how to use it:


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