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Two Ideologies And A Funeral

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Message David Michael Green

Social scientists aren’t generally blessed with the ability that those in the physical sciences have to manufacture artificial conditions allowing hypothesis testing.

In a worst case scenario, a physicist could be required to scrounge up tens of millions of dollars to build a particle accelerator, or a Hubble telescope. A social scientist, on the other hand, might need to launch a war to measure its properties, or starve people to study the psychology of famine. Oops – er, no can do. Try getting a grant for that!

Sometimes, though, you just get lucky. And when it comes to judging the central political debate of our time, we are lucky (as social scientists, that is, which means that we’ve been very unlucky, of late, as citizens).

America has conducted a natural experiment in ideology over the previous century, and we are now in a position to evaluate its results. From the 1930s through the 1970s, this country adopted essentially liberal policies (American liberal, to be sure, but still liberal). From the 1980s to the present, America charted a largely conservative course. There were huge exceptions to both tendencies, of course, but the overall trajectory of national politics during these eras cannot seriously be denied.

Now we are in a position to ask the simple empirical question: Which was better?

The answer, equally simple, strikes me as manifestly clear. Unfortunately, though, because liberals lost their conviction and their courage during the conservative era and therefore remain still to this day unwilling to even speak in ideological terms, let alone to name and indict conservatism’s failings in just those terms, few Americans are aware of this experiment and its results.

That can and must change. It is important to defeat each of regressive conservatism’s individual failed policies head-on, before they cause further damage, but it is more important to destroy the whole monster once and for all, bringing the shame and approbation down on its head that it so richly deserves, such that it might never return to haunt us again.

Assuming that people can be persuaded by facts and reason (a very large and unwarranted assumption in many cases, as I believe Al Gore’s new book is about to argue, and as I have found all too often from personal experience), this should be as easy as catching Dick Cheney in a lie – in other words, a total cakewalk. The case is overwhelming.

Consider, to begin with, economic conditions. The achievement of liberalism during its ascendant period was no less than the vast expansion – one might even say the very creation – of the American middle class. Americans owned homes in quantities that would have been inconceivable prior to this time. They sent their children (and themselves) to college in numbers vastly greater than ever before. They had better access to healthcare, and so they lived better, and they lived longer. And they also lived more humane lives than they had in the past, without having to work every hour of every week, with time for families, with access to cultural resources that enriched their lives, and with even a few bucks left remaining to throw the kids in the station wagon and take a vacation here and there.

It would, of course, be wrong to suggest that this was all the product of liberal policies, as opposed to other factors which were occurring simultaneously. But it would be equally erroneous to suggest that such policies were irrelevant. They were not. Social Security allowed seniors to retire in dignity where many had not previously been able to. The GI Bill sent hundreds of thousands of Americans to college, the first generation in their families ever to do so. Medicare and Medicaid brought crucial healthcare services to seniors and the less fortunate. Minimum wage and overtime laws protected workers from exploitation. Labor organizing laws allowed for decent wages and benefits. Environmental legislation protected the air we breathe and the water we drink from unhealthy if not lethal levels of pollution.

We could go on and on from there, but the point is made. The positive impact programs like these, and many others, have made in the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans is incalculable. Of course, conservatives bitterly opposed almost all of them, all down the line. And, in many cases, they even continue to do so today. Some among the regressive right, for instance, have still not gotten over the ‘socialistic’ assault of Social Security, and can’t wait to dismantle this and every other similar program, so that more people suffer while Wall Street grows yet fatter.

If anybody needs a taste of what that world might look like, just consider the last quarter century. In the era of Reagan, Gingrich, the Bushes and, yes, Clinton, we’ve had our very own experiment in conservative economics. Are you liking it so far?

Your answer probably depends on the size of your wallet. Remarkably, GDP growth during this period has been rather robust, while the middle class has more or less stood still. The hourly wage of the median worker rose only nine percent from 1979 to 2005. Median family income growth rose just 6 percent from 1979 to 1995 and the median family's income actually fell by 2.9 percent from 2000 to 2004. Most of the middle class feels like it is just getting by, and increasingly – as employers jettison healthcare and pension benefits, and as even white collar jobs are now being exported overseas – like they are slipping. Not surprisingly, Americans are today also drowning under staggering amounts of personal debt, estimated in 2004 at an average of $19,000 per US household, not including home mortgage debt.

How can we explain that GDP has been rising at a solid clip, but the middle class is stagnant? Where is all that money going? Well, for the richest Americans, these have been the best of times. Before the liberal period of the last century, the wealthiest ten percent of Americans were hauling in nearly fifty percent of national income. During the liberal era that ratio was cut down to about one-third. Now it is back up near half again, giving America a level of income inequality comparable to Third World countries (how do you like them bananas, Republicans?), not industrialized ones. Consider what’s happened to executive pay and you can see why. In 1982, CEOs made 42 times more in salary than their average worker. In 2001, that had become 525 times the (very) mean worker salary. So that a CEO now makes in a long afternoon what his employees make in an entire year.

If you think that’s messed up, you’ll love what the right has done to the federal government’s finances. Remember when conservatives used to win elections by railing at "tax-and-spend liberals"? Well, it turns out that they’re borrow-and-spend-even-more conservatives. That most revered deity of the right, Saint Ron, used his magic powers of voodoo economics to quadruple the national debt when he came to office. Meanwhile, George W. Bush has shown that he can out-Reagan Reagan. He took an all-time record surplus and turned it into an all-time record deficit. Today, the national debt stands at an astonishing nine trillion dollars. That’s more than $60,000 a piece for every taxpayer in America, plus an additional $2,000 or so more thrown on the pile per year, plus mounting, compounding interest on all this. In 2006, the federal government spent over $400 billion paying off interest on the debt alone, compared to $61 billion for education, or $56 billion for transportation. Some conservative achievement, eh?

Moreover, America, which was an industrial giant during the liberal era, is today running record-breaking trade deficits as well, as we buy from everyone else and they take a pass on whatever it is we’re selling these days. The figure just jumped another 8.2 percent last year, for a total of $860 billion per year, or 6.5 percent of our total economy, which is also a record. There are no doubt many reasons for this, but for sure conservative trade policies and tax breaks for corporations that export American jobs contributed mightily.

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David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.  He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (, but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. His website is (more...)
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