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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.

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