~ President Obama made a speech today of the kind he has long needed to make, and should continue to make. It goes to the heart of where the core debate in this country is right now. What kind of country do we want to be?
This isn’t just another political debate. This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make or break moment for the middle class, and all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. At stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, and secure their retirement.
Now, in the midst of this debate, there are some who seem to be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia. After all that’s happened, after the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, they want to return to the same practices that got us into this mess. In fact, they want to go back to the same policies that have stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for too many years. Their philosophy is simple: we are better off when everyone is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.
Well, I’m here to say they are wrong. I’m here to reaffirm my deep conviction that we are greater together than we are on our own. I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, and when everyone plays by the same rules. Those aren’t Democratic or Republican values; 1% values or 99% values. They’re American values, and we have to reclaim them. (Emphasis added)
Well, how did we get here?
Today, we are still home to the world’s most productive workers and innovative companies. But for most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded. Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefitted from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and investments than ever before. But everyone else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren’t – and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up.What does this mean specifically?
For many years, credit cards and home equity loans papered over the harsh realities of this new economy. But in 2008, the house of cards collapsed. We all know the story by now: Mortgages sold to people who couldn’t afford them, or sometimes even understand them. Banks and investors allowed to keep packaging the risk and selling it off. Huge bets – and huge bonuses – made with other people’s money on the line. Regulators who were supposed to warn us about the dangers of all this, but looked the other way or didn’t have the authority to look at all.
It was wrong. It combined the breathtaking greed of a few with irresponsibility across the system. And it plunged our economy and the world into a crisis from which we are still fighting to recover. It claimed the jobs, homes, and the basic security of millions – innocent, hard-working Americans who had met their responsibilities, but were still left holding the bag.
Now, just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there’s been a certain crowd in Washington for the last few decades who respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. “The market will take care of everything,” they tell us. If only we cut more regulations and cut more taxes – especially for the wealthy – our economy will grow stronger. Sure, there will be winners and losers. But if the winners do really well, jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everyone else. And even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, they argue, that’s the price of liberty.There are millions of people that vehemently disagree with Obama on this, and a quick look at the comments section shows the twin pillars of fact-free ignorance and doctrinaire certainty that fuel the more vitriolic reactions. It's OK for people to disagree, but much better for everyone would be responses grounded in historical evidence and verifiable truths rather than ideological bromides. More important still is that there be a debate on this question: what kind of country does America strive to be? Obama brings that question out into the open; it is now up to the rest of the country to propose and support answers to it. Some will doubtless infer evil motives and cry socialism and other such nonsense, but a factual discussion on what policies have been tried here and elsewhere and with what results is necessary.
It’s a simple theory – one that speaks to our rugged individualism and healthy skepticism of too much government. It fits well on a bumper sticker. Here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It’s never worked. It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It’s not what led to the incredible post-war boom of the 50s and 60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade.
Remember that in those years, in 2001 and 2003, Congress passed two of the most expensive tax cuts for the wealthy in history, and what did they get us? The slowest job growth in half a century. Massive deficits that have made it much harder to pay for the investments that built this country and provided the basic security that helped millions of Americans reach and stay in the middle class – things like education and infrastructure; science and technology; Medicare and Social Security.
Remember that in those years, thanks to some of the same folks who are running Congress now, we had weak regulation and little oversight, and what did that get us? Insurance companies that jacked up people’s premiums with impunity, and denied care to the patients who were sick. Mortgage lenders that tricked families into buying homes they couldn’t afford. A financial sector where irresponsibility and lack of basic oversight nearly destroyed our entire economy.
We simply cannot return to this brand of your-on-your-own economics if we’re serious about rebuilding the middle class in this country. We know that it doesn’t result in a strong economy. It results in an economy that invests too little in its people and its future. It doesn’t result in a prosperity that trickles down. It results in a prosperity that’s enjoyed by fewer and fewer of our citizens.
Look at the statistics. In the last few decades, the average income of the top one percent has gone up by more than 250%, to $1.2 million per year. For the top one hundredth of one percent, the average income is now $27 million per year. The typical CEO who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her workers now earns 110 times more. And yet, over the last decade, the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about six percent.
This kind of inequality – a level we haven’t seen since the Great Depression – hurts us all. When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, it drags down the entire economy, from top to bottom. America was built on the idea of broad-based prosperity – that’s why a CEO like Henry Ford made it his mission to pay his workers enough so that they could buy the cars they made. It’s also why a recent study showed that countries with less inequality tend to have stronger and steadier economic growth over the long run.
Inequality also distorts our democracy. It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions, and runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder. And it leaves everyone else rightly suspicious that the system in Washington is rigged against them – that our elected representatives aren’t looking out for the interests of most Americans. (Emphasis added)
Ultimately, the debate and discussion needed now should not be about policy, although that matters. Nor should it be about ideology, although that poisons so much of the discussion with an abundance of intransigence. Rather, we need to talk about what matters at the level of America's core values.
But what hasn’t changed – what can never change – are the values that got us this far. We still have a stake in each other’s success. We still believe that this should be a place where you can make it if you try. And we still believe, in the words of the man who called for a New Nationalism all those years ago, “The fundamental rule in our national life – the rule which underlies all others – is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.”Other lucid bits from the speech follow.
On banks and why we need accountability and oversight:
I’ll give you one example. For the first time in history, the reform we passed puts in place a consumer watchdog who is charged with protecting everyday Americans from being taken advantage of by mortgage lenders, payday lenders or debt collectors. The man we nominated for the post, Richard Cordray, is a former Attorney General of Ohio who has the support of most Attorneys General, both Democrat and Republican, throughout the country.On taxes:
But the Republicans in the Senate refuse to let him do his job. Why? Does anyone here think the problem that led to our financial crisis was too much oversight of mortgage lenders or debt collectors? Of course not. Every day we go without a consumer watchdog in place is another day when a student, or a senior citizen, or member of our Armed Forces could be tricked into a loan they can’t afford – something that happens all the time. Financial institutions have plenty of lobbyists looking out for their interests. Consumers deserve to have someone whose job it is to look out for them. I intend to make sure they do, and I will veto any effort to delay, defund, or dismantle the new rules we put in place.
We shouldn’t be weakening oversight and accountability. We should be strengthening them. Here’s another example. Too often, we’ve seen Wall Street firms violating major anti-fraud laws because the penalties are too weak and there’s no price for being a repeat offender. No more. I’ll be calling for legislation that makes these penalties count – so that firms don’t see punishment for breaking the law as just the price of doing business.
The fact is, this crisis has left a deficit of trust between Main Street and Wall Street. And major banks that were rescued by the taxpayers have an obligation to go the extra mile in helping to close that deficit. At minimum, they should be remedying past mortgage abuses that led to the financial crisis, and working to keep responsible homeowners in their home. We’re going to keep pushing them to provide more time for unemployed homeowners to look for work without having to worry about immediately losing their house. The big banks should increase access to refinancing opportunities to borrowers who have yet to benefit from historically low interest rates. And they should recognize that precisely because these steps are in the interest of middle-class families and the broader economy, they will also be in the banks’ own long-term financial interest. (Emphasis added)
But in the long term, we have to rethink our tax system more fundamentally. We have to ask ourselves: Do we want to make the investments we need in things like education, and research, and high-tech manufacturing? Or do we want to keep in place the tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans in our country? Because we can’t afford to do both. That’s not politics. That’s just math.On being competitive:
So far, most of the Republicans in Washington have refused, under any circumstances, to ask the wealthiest Americans to go the same tax rates they were paying when Bill Clinton was president.
Now, keep in mind, when President Clinton first proposed these tax increases, folks in Congress predicted they would kill jobs and lead to another recession. Instead, our economy created nearly 23 million jobs and we eliminated the deficit. Today, the wealthiest Americans are paying the lowest taxes in over half a century. This isn’t like in the early 50s, when the top tax rate was over 90%, or even the early 80s, when it was about 70%. Under President Clinton, the top rate was only about 39%. Today, thanks to loopholes and shelters, a quarter of all millionaires now pay lower tax rates than millions of middle-class households. Some billionaires have a tax rate as low as 1%. One percent.
This is the height of unfairness. It is wrong that in the United States of America, a teacher or a nurse or a construction worker who earns $50,000 should pay a higher tax rate than somebody pulling in $50 million. It is wrong for Warren Buffett’s secretary to pay a higher tax rate than Warren Buffett. And he agrees with me. So do most Americans – Democrats, Independents, and Republicans. And I know that many of our wealthiest citizens would agree to contribute a little more if it meant reducing the deficit and strengthening the economy that made their success possible.
This isn’t about class warfare. This is about the nation’s welfare. It’s about making choices that benefit not just the people who’ve done fantastically well over the last few decades, but that benefits the middle class, and those fighting to get to the middle class, and the economy as a whole. (Emphasis added)
The truth is, we’ll never be able to compete with other countries when it comes to who’s best at letting their businesses pay the lowest wages or pollute as much as they want. That’s a race to the bottom that we can’t win – and shouldn’t want to win. Those countries don’t have a strong middle-class. They don’t have our standard of living.
The race we want to win – the race we can win – is a race to the top; the race for good jobs that pay well and offer middle-class security. Businesses will create those jobs in countries with the highest-skilled, highest-educated workers; the most advanced transportation and communication; the strongest commitment to research and technology.
The world is shifting to an innovation economy. And no one does innovation better than America. No one has better colleges and universities. No one has a greater diversity of talent and ingenuity. No one’s workers or entrepreneurs are more driven or daring. The things that have always been our strengths match up perfectly with the demands of this moment.
But we need to meet the moment. We need to up our game. And we need to remember that we can only do that together. (Emphasis added)