Columnists and talking heads, regardless of political ideology, always seem to find data from impeccable sources to support their arguments. With the constant barrage of arguments and statistics cascading upon the American public, no wonder people are cynical. Since claim and counter-claim on a given issue appear to be a tossup, how can anybody judge one way or another?
Therein lies the great harm that well-financed propagandists do to our ability to solve national problems. When they deliberately distort the reality of what is happening in our society, too many people conclude that it is fruitless to make the effort to find out who is telling the truth. As a result, they mentally drop out of the political debate and rely on their most primitive biases.
John Weicher of the Hudson Institute gave us a classic example of the deliberate presentation of false premises supported by data that don't fit. In The Wall Street Journal he contended: "Did the rich get richer and the poor get poorer during the Reagan years? No, or at least not much, if at all. The distribution of wealth hardly changed... It's true that the rich got richer, but so did the middle class and the poor."
As proof, Weicher referred to data compiled by the Federal Reserve Board which indicated that "average wealth increased for every type of household except one—single women with children." That's fine, except it has zilch to do with the income disparity between rich and poor. For example, although the average wealth of married couples with children increased from $132,1000 to $175,100 between 1983 and 1989, as Weicher took pains to point out, that statistic says nothing about how well poor couples did compared to the rich ones in that same category.
Everyone with an I.Q over 80 should know that the average wealth of practically all categories of families increased because the top rungs of society saw their incomes skyrocket, while those in the bottom half of society lost pace with inflation. According to the Congressional Budget Office, between 1977 and 1989, the after-tax income of the top 1% of families rose 102.2%, the middle 20% of families fell 5.2%, and the bottom 20% fell 10.4%. These are the statistics that count.
Sure, the average for all families went up, but only because incomes for the top half went up far more than the bottom half stagnated or went down.
Daniel Mitchell, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, made similar distortions of respectable data. In a Knight-Ridder/Tribune news release, Mitchell asked and answered the question, "Did the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? Census Bureau data show that all income groups, including the bottom 20%, saw substantial increases in earnings during the Reagan years."While it's true that all income groups saw earnings increases in the 80s (although hardly "substantial" for the bottom 20%), the Census Bureau also stated that the real income of the bottom 20% went down by 6% when inflation is taken into account. And the University of Michigan Survey research center reported that the bottom 44% of Americans saw real income declines in the 80s.
Consider two different interpretations of another set of perfectly respectable data. First, the distortions of a typical defender of our sellout of the American worker: Mark Levinson, under the headline of "Hey, You're Doing Great," concluded in Newsweek that the vast middle class of "Americans are doing better than they think."
The article was a collection of absurdities based on the most preposterous definition of "middle-class" that one is apt to find. For Levinson's purposes, the middle class extended from above the bottom 40.3% of Americans, and up to the top 5.8%. Or, to put it another way, from those making over $25,000 and up to $100,000. (Incredibly, his definition of "upper-middle-class" was from the top 12.5% of Americans to the top 5.8%, or from $75,000 to $100,000 in income.)
When the top half of the bottom 40.3% of Americans are eliminated from the "middle class" category, indeed, the statistics of the "average" American in the 80s look a lot better.
Coming to an opposite conclusion, Aaron Bernstein wrote about data from approximately the same time period in "INEQUALITY, How the Gap Between Rich and Poor Hurts the Economy" in Businessweek. He cited 1992 data that indicated the U.S. had the widest income gap between rich and poor since the Census Bureau began keeping track in 1947.
Bernstein appropriately compared the top fifth of families to the bottom fifth in terms of the percentage of all income earned in the U.S. The top fifth saw their share of national income increase from 41% in 1980 to 44.6% in 1992. The bottom fifth suffered a decline from 5.1% in 1980 to 4.4% in 1992.
Bernstein made another meaningful comparison: 76% of the children from
the top quarter of families got bachelor's degrees in 1992, compared to
only 31% in 1980—more than doubling in the twelve
period. Of the families in the bottom quarter, less than 4%
got bachelor's degrees in 1992, down from 6%
in 1980—about a third fewer. At a time when everyone
agrees on the importance of education, these worsening differences between
rich and poor are indeed significant.
The previous examples of deliberate distortion are a sad indicator of the lack of ethics among today's apologists for America's wealthy and powerful. Weicher, Mitchell, Levinson, and all the others who publish such garbage have to be doing it deliberately. The manipulation of the data required such a conscious effort that it could not have been done accidentally or in good faith.
The damage to the misinformed American public is compounded when
opinion makers like Rush Limbaugh, Gordon Liddy, and Pat Robertson add
respectability to their demagoguery by quoting the Wall Street Journal or
even the "biased liberal news media," such as Newsweek, as
their sources for the "truth." The public doesn't stop to realize
that demagogues get their opinions published even in "respectable" publications.
Somehow we need, first, to publicize the fact that those who represent the interests of America's wealthy and powerful are deliberately lying about what is going on in our country.
Second, we need to publicize the statistics that matter. New data come out every day and they all say the same thing: income and wealth disparity between rich and poor are constantly getting worse—to the point where even many members of our lower middle-class are getting into serious trouble.
As part of this second point, we need to educate the public that there are verifiable data about many different levels of "reality." All levels say the same thing about what is going on in our country, and they are easily observed by anyone who wants to make the effort. For example:
The top 1% of Americans owned 31% of the total private wealth in the U.S. in 1983. That increased to 37% in 1989, and is 44% today. That's the bottom-line, end-result level of reality. Regardless of what anyone says about our "envy of the rich," or the unfairness to the wealthy of our economic policies, (progressive tax rates, inheritance taxes, capital gains taxes and so on) our richest Americans keep owning more and more of our country than they did before.
Consider the next level of reality, which include all kinds of specific statistical comparisons. For example, the average Chief Executive Officer made 35 times the average salary in his corporation in 1974. Today, he makes 400 to 500 times the average salary, depending on how the analysis is made.
On the other hand, average earnings for workers, in 1982 dollars, fell from $8.55 in 1973 to $7.39 in 1993. Wages in new manufacturing plants are coming in at $6-8/hour today, versus $12-15/hour fifteen years ago.
Now, consider the level of reality that you don't even need to read about. In your own city, drive through some of the new upper class neighborhoods. Note the mansions where only two to four persons live, the community golf course, the tennis courts, the country club, the best maintained streets in town, the manicured lawns. And think of the quality of their health care, the kinds of vacations they take, the level of education they and their children get, and the obvious safety of their community.
Then go through an older working class neighborhood, where the bottom 40% of Americans live. Note the deteriorating streets, the unkempt parks, the abandoned homes, and the dilapidated schools. You can literally feel the vulnerability to crime, the lack of personal security, the absence of optimism, and a pervading stress.
Put these three kinds of observations together, and many more that could be mentioned, and the deliberate lies of many of America's so-called conservative "think-tanks" become obvious.
The members of these propaganda centers have the morals of the American Tobacco Institute. The Institute still refuses to admit that tobacco is a direct cause of illness, despite all the evidence. In the same way, organizations such as the American Enterprise Institute, The Heritage Foundation, and the Hudson Institute refuse to admit that unfair economic policies (manipulation of the prime interest rate, regressive taxes, unregulated "free world trade," anti-labor legislation, etc.) directly cause the growing disparities between rich and poor.
Instead, they have misdirected the public's awareness of the real problem—the disparity of income between the wealthy and everyone else—to the favorite scapegoats of the wealthy and the established powerful: progressive taxes, welfare, crime, government protections of workers and the environment, unions, affirmative action and so on.
It's time we set the record straight. It should be easy. Those who
have deliberately sold out middle and working class Americans have to lie
to get their points across. All we have to do is tell the truth.
Loudly, repeatedly, and from all directions.