The New Yorker always devotes the opening article of its "Talk of the Town" to political teachings that keep its readers in good standing at the Church of Assured Sophistication. This week's sermon is delivered by George Packer. Its key passage:
The conservative tide of the past quarter century has made it almost impossible for government to address our most serious national problems. The erosion of middle-class jobs and incomes and the startling rise in the number of poor and uninsured Americans are calamities without congressional hearings, bipartisan commissions, and patriotic oratory. Along the bandwidth of acceptable domestic policy there is no longer room for the state to play a decisive role in reversing these disastrous trends.
There used to be a word for national greatness on the home front: liberalism. It was a philosophy that made the federal government the guarantor of individual rights and of equal opportunity. Several decades of political combat have turned it into a term of abuse. . . .
As an insult, 'liberalism' has probably outlived its usefulness. As a vision of justice and equality . . . it never stopped being relevant. In the past few years, America has grown manifestly less equal and less free even while offering itself as a model to undemocratic countries. The next President could help our case before the world by acknowledging these facts and using the power of the office to begin correcting them. He wouldn't have to call himself a liberal; he could simply act like one.
Unfortunately for Packer, a serious journalist has taken the trouble to actually examine the trends in American economic life. Robert Samuelson of Newsweek unpacked the Census Bureau's figures on household income, concluding that, "They certainly don't indicate that, over any reasonable period, middle-class living standards have stagnated. Mostly, the middle class is getting richer." In 2003, 15 percent of U.S. households had pre-tax incomes over $100,000, and another 29 percent were between $50,000 and $100,000. In 1990 (adjusting for inflation) the comparable figures were 10 percent and 30. In 1980, they were 6 and 29 percent. The "erosion" of the middle class involves more of it joining the upper class, where it can try on both the political attitudes and luxury items on display in the New Yorker.
Furthermore, Samuelson points out that demographic, rather than economic changes, disguise the extent of American prosperity: "The median household was once imagined as a family of Mom, Dad and two kids. But 'typical' no longer exists. There are more singles, childless couples and retirees. Smaller households tend to have lower incomes. They drag down the overall median." Comparing apples and apples, Samuelson finds that the median income for two-person households was 10 percent higher in 2003 than it was in 1990, while the median income for four-person households went up 14 percent in that period.
In other words, we don't need "congressional hearings and bipartisan commissions" to establish that the "calamity" of "the erosion of middle-class jobs and incomes" just isn't happening. Relying on competent research instead of hyperventilating rhetoric will suffice.
What about the other "disastrous trend," the "startling rise in the number of poor and uninsured Americans?" According to Samuelson, there were 700,000 fewer whites below the poverty line in 2003 than in 1990, while the black poverty rate declined from 32 percent to 24 percent over the same period.
Packer is wringing his hands about "national" trends that, in fact, reflect changes within a single segment of the population. Samuelson says that 3 million more Hispanics had incomes below the poverty line in 2003 than in 1990, and that the 13 million Hispanics without health insurance in 2003 accounted for 60 percent of the national increase in that category since 1990.
While this development has completely escaped George Packer's notice, there is, according to Samuelson, "no mystery here. If more poor and unskilled people enter the countryand have childrenthere will be more poverty." Thirty-three percent of all immigrants lack a high-school education, while 13 percent of native-born Americans do.
Much attention has been devoted to the divisions among conservatives over what to do about immigration, but less to how it is a problem for liberals. Since immigration accounts for such a large portion of the problems that Packer thinks are so urgent (in a country "manifestly less equal and less free"), it is only fair for him to address that question. In particular, is there room in the bandwidth of liberal policy proposals for what Samuelson recognizes as the most difficult challenge: effective measures to control "the inflow of illegal and poor immigrants?" If you're in a rush to hear that sermon, you haven't got a prayer.