Last week, three seemingly unrelated events illustrated an important truth about our nation’s political debate. In Detroit, a 125-year-old mansion went on the market for a “paltry” $2.8 million. Further south, the Archbishop of Atlanta vacated his newly built $2.2 million house due, in part, to pressure from some of his parishioners who viewed his residence as an inappropriate symbol of excess. And in Washington, D.C., Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal passed the House of Representatives.
Ryan’s budget was immediately assailed by liberals, with the House Minority Leader calling it “an attack on our seniors, our workers, our students, our middle class, and our future.”
Sound harsh? Yes, but such is the reality of today’s class warfare rhetoric. It pits public vs. private, government vs. church, elites vs. … well, other elites (more about those in a moment). Even our current president, who played this card so well during his 2008 primary fight with Hillary Clinton, continues to use it well into his second term. Because it works.
In polls, following Obama’s recent reelection, a vast majority of respondents thought he cared more than the other guy. When you create the perception that you are dismissing 47 percent of the population as “takers” who’ll never listen to your message, you have an image problem.
Conservatives often focus on facts and rational arguments, rather on people’s real-life stories. Case in point: They argue against the minimum wage by citing studies that indicate it will lead to loss of jobs (which it does). But citing numbers does nothing to address the most important question: How do we lift people out of poverty? The minimum wage isn’t the answer, but Republicans lost the minimum wage debate because they let their opponents, especially the unions, define the conversation.
Statistics don’t inspire like stories of entrepreneurs made good, children learning after escaping the unionized government school monopoly, and young mothers rising out of poverty. That should be an obvious point. But conservatives often ignore it, along with the perceptions of large segments of the population. Is it any wonder Republicans face a challenge in reaching swing voters?
As many in the big, broad middle see it, the game is rigged in favor of big business, the politically connected, and the wealthy. And it is. As a classical liberal, I find populism extremely dangerous. But the data don’t lie, and they indicate, marginally speaking, that the “rich” are getting richer and inequality has increased. That doesn’t mean the president is right as to the “why.” It does mean we need an answer to the “so now what?”
For half a century now, the federal War on Poverty, the vaunted apex of activist government, has done little to ameliorate poverty while dramatically increasing dependency. And under the Obama administration, that mobility has suffered. Real family incomes are down even as the stock market soars to new highs. Housing markets are up in certain cities—most notably, in government spending-fueled D.C.—but only marginally improved nationwide.
So why has the Left’s narrative dominated the debate despite its long history of failure? That’s where those two now-vacant houses in Detroit and Atlanta come in. The Detroit home boasts 21,000 square feet with 13 fireplaces. The Atlanta home is 6,000 square feet and has an eight-burner stove. In Washington, D.C., the Detroit property would be worth tens of millions, while the Atlanta property would just be a house. Context and perception matter. And that’s what the rising class-war chorus ignores.
Lost in all the noise is a powerful truth: Between 1970 and 2010 the number of people living on one dollar a day or less has decreased by 80 percent. In other words, 80 percent of the world’s worst poverty has been eradicated in less than 40 years. It’s because of trade, globalization, entrepreneurship, and free exchange.
Income inequality tells us nothing about the absolute condition of the poor. Having a smaller share of the nation’s income today does not automatically make you poorer than yesterday. If I asked you: “Do you want 1/6 of the pizza or 1/9th of the pizza?” You’d probably answer, “It depends on the size of the pizza!” Snapshots of relative wealth tell us nothing about economic mobility. That’s the real story. Or rather, the real stories of millions of individuals making a better world for themselves, their families, and their communities.
And they’re all happening in spite of politicians’ best efforts.
But hey, political elites can still play their games, talking and pointing fingers. The president is now going around the country encouraging liberal billionaires to bankroll the political campaigns of Democratic millionaires who attack
Republican millionaires whose campaigns are bankrolled by conservative billionaires. All in the name of helping the “little guy.”