In a speech last week, President Obama declared that income inequality is the “defining challenge of our time.” Conservatives, however, seem to think talk about the gap between the super rich and everyone else is nothing more than the whining of society’s losers.
Obama said he would push for an increase in the federal minimum wage. Unfortunately, this will be yet another piece of legislation that has about as much chance getting passed in the Republican-controlled House as a bill to ban country music, gun shows and Sunday schools. Still, Obama said he would challenge the GOP to support his efforts to deal with the income gap or at least offer some ideas of their own.
“If Republicans have concrete plans that will actually reduce inequality, build the middle class, provide moral ladders of opportunity to the poor, let's hear them,” Obama said in his address at the Center for American Progress. “I want to know what they are.”
In answer, House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio tweeted the usual meaningless bromide: “He promotes more government instead of more freedom.” Such blather ignores the irony that a great many low-wage workers earn so little money that they are forced to depend on government aid, such as food stamps, to provide for their families. Apparently, the speaker and his fellow Republicans do not mind subsidizing multibillion-dollar corporations, such as McDonalds, by giving federal aid to the many workers who are not paid enough to support themselves.
Most of our political class – and not just Republicans – have not seriously confronted the new, stark fact of the American economy: The jobs that used to provide a good living wage to workers with no more than high school diplomas have nearly disappeared, yet we still have millions of people in that category. Quite a few rungs have been broken out of the ladder to success and no one is doing much to install new ones – certainly not our Congress, the most dysfunctional in American history, nor our “job creators,” the business owners who are hoarding cash and dumping more work on the employees they already have.
Republicans have an economic view that is myopically one-sided. They rightly recognize that a healthy private sector creates jobs. What they fail to acknowledge is that the private sector is not sustained by business owners alone. There would be no businesses without the workers whose labor enriches owners and investors.
For two decades, too large a share of business profits have been going to richly compensated chief executive officers and Wall Street while wages have stagnated. The fruits of capitalism need to be spread much more widely, as was the case in the 1950s and '60s when the American middle class was robust and thriving and so was the economy. The first small step in that direction is simple: Raise the minimum wage.