In “The Debt Indulgence” Bobo gurgles that the Wisconsin vote will be revealing for what it says about the public’s willingness to reverse course on our built-up tolerance of debt. Our “built-up tolerance of debt” is really precious. Perhaps Bobo thinks history began in 2001. Remember all the way back BEFORE then, when there was (gasp) a surplus? Before C+ Augustus pissed it all away? Mr. Nocera, in “Turning Our Backs on Unions,” says labor is in decline, and the income gap is widening. That’s not a coincidence. We’ve forgotten what necessary institutions unions are. Mr. Bruni has a question in “The Enigma Beside Edwards:” What’s the proper verdict on a daughter’s unswerving devotion? Here’s Bobo:
Every generation has an incentive to borrow money from the future to spend on itself. But, until ours, no generation of Americans has done it to the same extent. Why?
A huge reason is that earlier generations were insecure. They lived without modern medicine, without modern technology and without modern welfare states. They lived one illness, one drought and one recession away from catastrophe. They developed a moral abhorrence about things like excessive debt, which would further magnify their vulnerability.
Recently, life has become better and more secure. But the aversion to debt has diminished amid the progress. Credit card companies seduced people into borrowing more. Politicians found that they could buy votes with borrowed money. People became more comfortable with red ink.
Today we are living in an era of indebtedness. Over the past several years, society has oscillated ever more wildly though three debt-fueled bubbles. First, there was the dot-com bubble. Then, in 2008, the mortgage-finance bubble. Now, we are living in the fiscal bubble.
In this country, the federal government has borrowed more than $6 trillion in the last four years alone, trying to counteract the effects of the last two bubbles. States struggle with pension promises that should never have been made. Europe is on the verge of collapse because governments there can’t figure out how to deal with their debts. Nations around the globe have debt-to-G.D.P. ratios at or approaching 90 percent — the point at which growth slows and prosperity stalls.
It all goes back to the increase in the tolerance for debt.
Democrats and Republicans argue about how quickly deficits should be brought down. But everybody knows debt has to be restrained at some point. The problem is that nobody has been able to find a political way to do it.
The common view among politicians is that pundits may rail against debt, but voters don’t actually care. Voters don’t want to face the consequences of their spending demands. They’ll throw you out of office if you make the tough decisions required to cut deficits. That’s why debt mounts and mounts. Voters want it to.
Until maybe today.
Today voters in Wisconsin go to the polls to decide whether to recall Gov. Scott Walker. I’m not a complete fan of the way Walker went about reducing debt. In an age of tough choices, one bedrock principle should be: We’re all in this together. If you are going to cut from the opposing party’s interest groups, you should also cut from some of your own. That’s how you build trust and sustain progress, one administration to the next.
Walker didn’t do that. He just sliced Democrats. But, in the real world, we don’t get to choose perfect test cases. And Walker did at least take on entrenched interest groups. He did turn a $3.6 billion deficit into a $150 million surplus, albeit with the help of a tax collection surge. He did make it possible for willing school districts to save money on health insurance so they could spend it on students.
Walker’s method was obnoxious, but if he is recalled that will send a broader message, with effects far beyond Wisconsin. It will be a signal that voters are, indeed, unwilling to tolerate tough decisions to reduce debt. In Washington and in state capitals, it will confirm the view that voters don’t really care about red ink. It will remove any hope this country might have of avoiding a fiscal catastrophe.
On the other hand, if Walker wins today, it will be a sign, as the pollster Scott Rasmussen has been arguing, that the voters are ahead of the politicians. It will be a sign that voters do value deficit reduction and will vote for people who accomplish it, even in a state that has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1984.
A vote to keep Walker won’t be an antiunion vote. It will be a vote against any special interest that seeks to preserve exorbitant middle-class benefits at the expense of the public good. It will tell the presidential candidates that it is safe to get specific about what they will do this December, when hard deficit choices will have to be made.
President Obama has hung back from the Wisconsin race. I’m hoping that’s not crass political opportunism but an acknowledgment that governments do have to confront their unaffordable commitments. Mitt Romney has been more straightforward, but even he hasn’t campaigned on the choices he would make. If Walker wins, the presidential candidates would have to be as clear before their election as Walker has been after his.
The era of indebtedness began with a cultural shift. It will require a gradual popular shift to reverse. Today’s Wisconsin vote might mark the moment when the nation’s long debt indulgence finally began to turn around.
It figures. No mention of Iraq, no mention of W, no mention of any tax cuts for people in his income class… He should be pelted with rotten produce. Here’s Mr. Nocera:
“The Great Divergence” by Timothy Noah is a book about income inequality, and if you’re thinking, “Do we really need another book about income inequality?” the answer is yes. We need this one.
It stands out in part because Noah, a columnist for The New Republic, is not content to simply shake his fists at the heavens in anger. He spends exactly one chapter on what he calls the “rise of the stinking rich” — that is, the explosion in executive pay and what he calls “the financialization of the economy,” which has enriched one small segment of society at the expense of everyone else.
Mostly, he grapples with the deep, hard-to-tickle-out reasons that the gap between the rich and the middle class in the United States has widened to such alarming proportions. How much have technological advances contributed to income inequality? Globalization and off-shoring? The necessity of having a college education to land a decent-paying job? The decline of labor unions?
That last one, I have to admit, caught me up short. My parents were both public high school teachers, who proudly walked picket lines when the need arose. My hometown, Providence, R.I., was about as pro-union a city as you could find outside the Rust Belt. But like many college-educated children of union parents, I have never been a member of a union, and I viewed them with mild disdain.
As Andy Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union, put it to me: “White-collar professionals tend to appreciate what unions did for their parents. But they don’t view today’s janitors or nurse’s aides in the same way.” Instead, they — or, rather, we — tend to focus on the many things that are wrong with unions, exemplified these days by the pensions of public service employees that are breaking the backs of so many cities and states. Unions seem like a spent force, and we tend not to lament their demise.
Noah includes himself as one of those liberals “who spent too much time beating up unions,” as he told me recently. (He and I are both members of the informal Washington Monthly alumni society.) His thinking began to change in the early 1990s when he read “Which Side Are You On?” It is a powerful meditation on the difficulties unions face, written by Thomas Geoghegan, a Chicago labor lawyer. Researching “The Great Divergence” reinforced Noah’s growing view that when liberals turned their backs on unions — when they put, in his words, “identity politics over economic justice” — they made a terrible mistake.
Noah places the high-water mark for unionism in the mid-1950s, when nearly 40 percent of American workers were either union members or “nonunion members who were nonetheless covered by union contracts.” In the early postwar years, even the Chamber of Commerce believed that “collective bargaining is a part of the democratic process,” as its then-president noted in a statement.
But, in the late-1970s, union membership began falling off a cliff, brought on by a variety of factors, including jobs moving offshore and big labor’s unsavory reputation. Government didn’t help either: Ronald Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers in 1981 sent an unmistakable signal that companies could run roughshod over federal laws intended to protect unions — which they’ve done ever since.
The result is that today unions represent 12 percent of the work force. “Draw one line on a graph charting the decline in union membership, then superimpose a second line charting the decline in middle-class income share,” writes Noah, “and you will find that the two lines are nearly identical.” Richard Freeman, a Harvard economist, has estimated that the decline of unions explains about 20 percent of the income gap.
This makes perfect sense, of course. Company managements don’t pay workers any more than they have to — look, for instance, at Walmart, one of the most virulently antiunion companies in the country. In their heyday, unions represented a countervailing force that could extract money for its workers that helped keep them in the middle class. Noah notes that a JPMorgan economist calculated that the majority of increased corporate profits between 2000 and 2007 were the result of “reductions in wages and benefits.” That makes sense, too. At the same time labor has been in decline, the power of shareholders has been on the rise.
“Say what you want about the abuses that labor committed,” says Noah. “They were adversarial. They weren’t concerned enough about the general prosperity. Some of them were mobbed up. But they were necessary institutions.”
Not surprisingly, Noah closes his book with a call for a revival of the labor movement. It is hard to see that happening any time soon. And unions need to change if they are to become viable again. But if liberals really want to reverse income inequality, they should think seriously about rejoining labor’s side.
Liberals already are. See Wisconsin. The Powers That Be that “lead” the Democratic party? Not so much. Here’s Mr. Bruni:
By the end of John Edwards’s trial, we’d all heard more than we ever wanted to about the sad characters in this sordid melodrama: the politician himself, whose ego trumps Trump’s; his onetime aide, who mistook “Single White Female” for an instruction manual; the New Age mistress, who complained when a love nest lacked the proper feng shui. Regrettably, she has a memoir due out soon. Proper feng shui dictates its placement in the remainder bin.
But there’s a figure from the trial I can’t stop thinking about, someone on the fringes of the melodrama but in the center of Edwards’s courtroom retinue, the kind of steadfast supporting player every political sex scandal seems to demand, the archetype with the least accessible but most fascinating tangle of emotions.
What was Cate Edwards thinking? What went through her mind and heart as she walked with her father into court every morning, took a place in the row behind his, listened to fresh accounts of his treacheries and her mother’s torment, nervously twisted her long hair, and then walked with him back out of court, day after queasy-making day?
Was she propelled by selflessness, forgiveness and an extraordinary strength that enabled her to look hard at the grievous hurt John Edwards caused and yet look past it? Or was she just repressing it in order to do what she herself needed to do: cling to, and believe in, the only parent she had left?
With her mother gone, Cate, a 30-year-old lawyer, was the woman confronted with the choice to stand (or not) by her man, and in her there were echoes of Hillary Clinton, Silda Spitzer, Huma Abedin: of all the enigmas who have weighed the wrong done to them and the options available to them and arrived at accommodations that no one on the outside of a given marriage or family can ever fully understand.
Cate’s situation was different — and sadder. Although she wasn’t directly betrayed, her whole family was devastated, all the more so because both of her parents ended up being publicly savaged, her mother’s tirades becoming legend. Elizabeth Edwards spent the years before her death in late 2010 not only battling cancer and but also raging against her husband’s infidelity, lies and squandered promise, even though there was no benefit in that for Cate and her two younger siblings, now 12 and 14. Cate’s as close to a mother as those children have left.
She’s practiced at heartache. An older brother, Wade, died in a car accident in 1996, when he was 16 and she only 14; for two years afterward, she slept in her parents’ bedroom, on two chairs pushed together.
Like Dad and Mom both, she became a lawyer, heading to Harvard for her law degree after undergraduate work at Princeton. At the Democratic National Convention in 2004, where her father was the party’s vice presidential nominee and her mother spoke, Cate took the stage briefly to introduce her.
“I am the proud child,” she said, “of two people who have made our home a place of hope.” How much of that sentiment was true up until then, and genuinely felt? How much could she hold on to, or recover, over the torturous years to come?
During the trial she fielded many requests for interviews, but didn’t grant any substantive ones. In an era when so many people thrill to and preen for the spotlight, no matter why it’s there, she showed up for court in unfashionable tops and skirts, ballet flats and chipped nail polish. She wasn’t there to perform. If she intends to join the lengthening list of political daughters who have converted their surnames into television exposure, she hasn’t shown it.
And yet. She had her wedding last fall photographed for — and written up in — People magazine. In a less flashy vein, she wrote a moving Mother’s Day essay for Southern Living last month.
Could these have been public relations moves made with her father in mind, and timed to coincide with his trial? She often seemed to leap past mere support for him to active help, scribbling charts and notations during the jury-selection phase.
Elizabeth Edwards, in the weeks before she died, seemingly made a sort of peace with John and no doubt wanted the family to stay strong. That would have been a whole lot tougher to pull off if he’d gone to prison or if he’d stood by himself in that courtroom, lonely proof of a family unstitched.
So maybe Cate marched alongside him not out of any particular mercy or meekness but just because she, more than anyone else in the family, held the needle and thread, and because what she said on a stage eight years ago still rings at least slightly true. In the Edwards home, despite everything that’s happened, there’s hope.