Talking about class in the Wall Street Journal

Jim Webb, Democratic senator-elect from Virginia, writes in the Wall Street Journal:

Class Struggle

November 15, 2006

The most important-and unfortunately the least debated-issue in politics today is our society’s steady drift toward a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century. America’s top tier has grown infinitely richer and more removed over the past 25 years. It is not unfair to say that they are literally living in a different country. Few among them send their children to public schools; fewer still send their loved ones to fight our wars. They own most of our stocks, making the stock market an unreliable indicator of the economic health of working people. The top 1% now takes in an astounding 16% of national income, up from 8% in 1980. The tax codes protect them, just as they protect corporate America, through a vast system of loopholes.

Incestuous corporate boards regularly approve compensation packages for chief executives and others that are out of logic’s range. As this newspaper has reported, the average CEO of a sizeable corporation makes more than $10 million a year, while the minimum wage for workers amounts to about $10,000 a year, and has not been raised in nearly a decade. When I graduated from college in the 1960s, the average CEO made 20 times what the average worker made. Today, that CEO makes 400 times as much.

In the age of globalization and outsourcing, and with a vast underground labor pool from illegal immigration, the average American worker is seeing a different life and a troubling future. Trickle-down economics didn’t happen. Despite the vaunted all-time highs of the stock market, wages and salaries are at all-time lows as a percentage of the national wealth. At the same time, medical costs have risen 73% in the last six years alone. Half of that increase comes from wage-earners’ pockets rather than from insurance, and 47 million Americans have no medical insurance at all.

Manufacturing jobs are disappearing. Many earned pension programs have collapsed in the wake of corporate “reorganization.” And workers’ ability to negotiate their futures has been eviscerated by the twin threats of modern corporate America: If they complain too loudly, their jobs might either be outsourced overseas or given to illegal immigrants.

This ever-widening divide is too often ignored or downplayed by its beneficiaries. A sense of entitlement has set in among elites, bordering on hubris. When I raised this issue with corporate leaders during the recent political campaign, I was met repeatedly with denials, and, from some, an overt lack of concern for those who are falling behind.

… America’s elites need to understand this reality in terms of their own self-interest. A recent survey in the Economist warned that globalization was affecting the U.S. differently than other “First World” nations, and that white-collar jobs were in as much danger as the blue-collar positions which have thus far been ravaged by outsourcing and illegal immigration. That survey then warned that “unless a solution is found to sluggish real wages and rising inequality, there is a serious risk of a protectionist backlash” in America that would take us away from what they view to be the “biggest economic stimulus in world history.”… The politics of the Karl Rove era were designed to distract and divide the very people who would ordinarily be rebelling against the deterioration of their way of life. Working Americans have been repeatedly seduced at the polls by emotional issues such as the predictable mantra of “God, guns, gays, abortion and the flag” while their way of life shifted ineluctably beneath their feet.

2 comments

  • agreed – there was a good article in the Toronto Star on this today speaking about poverty by neighbourhood. You can see it on my site.

  • Senator-elect Webb talking about Class, yes, and that’s remarkable enough, but without even the slightest effort to say what should be done. As it happens, this omission was noticed by letter-writers to the WSJ:

    Letters in response to Jim Webb’s Nov. 15 editorial-page essay “American Workers Have a Chance To Be Heard”:

    Blah, blah, blah. When are we going to actually hear something of substance from the Democrats? You would think they would’ve begun outlining how to deal with the “inequalities.” People will start to think that they might not know what to do next.

    Michael S. Woodard
    Charlotte, N.C.

    Jay S. Haberman
    New York

    Nowhere does Mr. Webb actually outline what he’ll do to benefit the American worker. All he provides is a list of Democrat buzzwords and phrases — job outsourcing, CEO compensation, Rove, wage gap, Wal-Mart, etc. I have no problem with Democrats addressing issues they perceive to be hurting the American worker, but, please — offer solutions.

    Timothy O. Corkery
    South Boston

    Mr. Webb is long on class envy and short on facts. Nowhere does he state what he would do to change the status quo. Senator, it is not the politics of the Karl Rove era that are distracting and dividing people — it’s you.

    Joe Schroeder
    Big Canoe, Ga.

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